She went on to say that “it’s impossible to know what happens in the fog of war. Some reports say, maybe it wasn’t the exact UN school that was bombed, but it was the annex to the school next door where they were firing the rockets. And I do think oftentimes that the anguish you are privy to because of the coverage, and the women and the children and all the rest of that, makes it very difficult to sort through to get to the truth.”
She continued, “There’s no doubt in my mind that Hamas initiated this conflict. … So the ultimate responsibility has to rest on Hamas and the decisions it made.”
When I asked her about the intense international focus on Gaza, she was quick to identify anti-Semitism as an important motivating factor in criticism of Israel. “It is striking … that you have more than 170,000 people dead in Syria. … You have Russia massing battalions—Russia, that actually annexed and is occupying part of a UN member-state—and I fear that it will do even more to prevent the incremental success of the Ukrainian government to take back its own territory, other than Crimea. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Ukraine on both sides, not counting the [Malaysia Airlines] plane, and yet we do see this enormous international reaction against Israel, and Israel’s right to defend itself, and the way Israel has to defend itself. This reaction is uncalled for and unfair.”
She went on, “You can’t ever discount anti-Semitism, especially with what’s going on in Europe today. There are more demonstrations against Israel by an exponential amount than there are against Russia seizing part of Ukraine and shooting down a civilian airliner. So there’s something else at work here than what you see on TV.” Clinton also blamed Hamas for “stage-managing” the conflict. “What you see is largely what Hamas invites and permits Western journalists to report on from Gaza. It’s the old PR problem that Israel has. Yes, there are substantive, deep levels of antagonism or anti-Semitism towards Israel, because it’s a powerful state, a really effective military. And Hamas paints itself as the defender of the rights of the Palestinians to have their own state. So the PR battle is one that is historically tilted against Israel.”
Clinton also seemed to take an indirect shot at administration critics of Netanyahu, who has argued that the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in the Middle East means that Israel cannot, in the foreseeable future, withdraw its forces from much of the West Bank. “If I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security, because even if I’m dealing with [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else. With Syria and Iraq, it is all one big threat. So Netanyahu could not do this in good conscience.”
She also struck a notably hard line on Iran’s nuclear demands. “I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment,” Clinton said. “Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out.” When I asked her if the demands of Israel, and of America’s Arab allies, that Iran not be allowed any uranium-enrichment capability whatsoever were militant or unrealistic, she said, “I think it’s important that they stake out that position.”
What follows is a transcript of our conversation. It has been edited for clarity but not for length, as you will see. Two other things to look for: First, the masterful way in which Clinton says she has drawn no conclusions about events in Syria and elsewhere, and then draws rigorously reasoned conclusions. Second, her fascinating and complicated analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood's ill-fated dalliance with democracy.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: It seems that you’ve shifted your position on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. By [chief U.S. negotiator] Wendy Sherman’s definition of maximalism, you’ve taken a fairly maximalist position—little or no enrichment for Iran. Are you taking a harder line than your former colleagues in the Obama administration are taking on this matter?
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: It’s a consistent line. I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment. Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out. So, little or no enrichment has always been my position.
JG: Am I wrong in saying that the Obama administration’s negotiators have a more flexible understanding of this issue at the moment?
HRC: I don’t want to speak for them, but I would argue that Iran, through the voice of the supreme leader, has taken a very maximalist position—he wants 190,000 centrifuges and the right to enrich. And some in our Congress, and some of our best friends, have taken the opposite position—absolutely no enrichment. I think in a negotiation you need to be very clear about what it is going to take to move the other side. I think at the moment there is a big debate going on in Tehran about what they can or should do in order to get relief from the sanctions. It’s my understanding that we still have a united P5+1 position, which is intensive inspections, very clear limits on what they can do in their facilities that they would permitted to operate, and then how they handle this question of enrichment, whether it’s done from the outside, or whether it can truly be constrained to meet what I think our standard should be of little-to-no enrichment. That’s what this negotiation is about.
JG: But there is no sign that the Iranians are willing to pull back—freezing in place is the farthest they seem to be willing to go. Am I wrong?
HRC: We don’t know. I think there’s a political debate. I think you had the position staked out by the supreme leader that they’re going to get to do what they want to do, and that they don’t have any intention of having a nuclear weapon but they nevertheless want 190,000 centrifuges (laughs). I think the political, non-clerical side of the equation is basically saying, “Look, you know, getting relief from these sanctions is economically and politically important to us. We have our hands full in Syria and Iraq, just to name two places, maybe increasingly in Lebanon, and who knows what’s going to happen with us and Hamas. So what harm does it do to have a very strict regime that we can live under until we determine that maybe we won’t have to any longer?” That, I think, is the other side of the argument.