Hacked emails show Clinton walking fine line between Obama, Israel

By Nicole Gaouette and Elise Labott CNN

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's not easy being stuck between feuding friends.

Recently hacked emails show the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton working hard to strike a balance on the subject of Israel.

On the one hand, her aides didn't want to be seen criticizing President Barack Obama. On the other, they wanted to distance their candidate from Obama's unpopular nuclear talks with Iran and his feud with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also known as "Bibi."

The emails provide a window into the approach a President Clinton might take toward America's closest Mideast ally and reveal a campaign wrestling not only with a range of Israel-related issues, but myriad outside voices trying to sway them.

After rounds of failed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, Clinton indicated in one email that she thinks even an illusory "Potemkin" process is better than nothing -- raising the possibility that she'll champion a new effort should she enter the White House.

In speeches on Iran and the nuclear deal, she stressed Tehran's threat to the region and the need to vigorously enforce the agreement, points largely in line with what Israeli officials were saying. She generally avoided public criticism of the nuclear negotiations themselves, in keeping with a decision aides made that she shouldn't be an "attack dog" against the deal.

In March 2015, Clinton wrote to her chief foreign policy advisor, Jake Sullivan, about a New York Times article detailing Netanyahu's apology to Israeli Arabs after comments that were perceived to be racist.

Netanyahu had made the remarks while campaigning for re-election, also saying that no Palestinian state would be created on his watch. In her email, Clinton said Netanyahu's apology "is an opening that should be exploited" for potential peace talks.

'Potemkin' peace process

"A Potemkin process is better than nothing," she wrote, a phrase connoting a deception that makes things look better than they are. The message was one of thousands of emails stolen from campaign chairman John Podesta's account and released by the organization WikiLeaks.

The Clinton campaign is not confirming the authenticity of individual emails but has condemned the WikiLeaks releases of stolen emails. US intelligence services have said the hacks were consistent with breaches of other Democratic groups by Russian actors.

The campaign would not comment on the Israel-related emails, in keeping with a policy of not discussing any of the emails, which CNN cannot independently verify. This story is based on some of the released emails that touch on Israel.

Later, as the Obama administration took a beating from pro-Israel groups for the unpopular nuclear talks with Iran while Clinton looked to shore up the community's support, her campaign tried to separate themselves without being overtly critical.

It was a tricky challenge, as Clinton played a role in launching those negotiations. Her State Department shepherded the secret talks with Iran that led to open negotiations, with Clinton sending Sullivan to meet secretly with Iranian officials in Oman.

In one email, Clinton supporter Stuart Eizenstat described a conversation in which Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the US, complained that the Obama administration was "tone deaf" about the "existential threat" that Iran poses to Israel. He urged Eizenstat to have Clinton to publicly acknowledge that.

Officials at the Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment on any aspect of the emails.

Dermer also fretted about the possibility that Clinton could get booed for defending the Iran deal in front of an Israeli audience, as Treasury Secretary Jack Lew had been.

According to Eizenstat, a Jewish People Policy Institute leader who volunteered his advice about Israel to the campaign, Dermer cautioned that Clinton "should not get too invested in" the Iran deal and that she should "list the concerns" she has. She should then go on to commit to confront Iran in other areas, including its terrorism, and to strengthen US allies in the region.

Tackling Iran

Some of the pointers aligned with the position Clinton's aides were hashing out at the time and that appeared in her speeches.

In December 2015, she referred to "Tehran's fingerprints" being on "nearly every conflict across the Middle East," the need to "distrust and verify" that Iran was holding up its end of the nuclear deal and the threat the ayatollahs pose to Israel.

And yet, aides were careful about the balance they struck in being tough on Iran but not criticizing the administration. In one January exchange about a speech at the Jewish Federation of Des Moines, a staffer wondered whether Clinton should talk about Iranian soldiers in Syria "weakening our (US-led anti-ISIS) coalition and putting troops on Israel's doorstep."

A speechwriter responded that Podesta's guidance was: "We don't want her to be the attack dog."

Sullivan then weighed in with a four-word response: "I would lay off."

In other emails, aides and advisors mulled the ways they could highlight Clinton's opposition to anti-Israel boycott movements, discussed Netanyahu's hard-fought March 2015 election win and shared the Prime Minister's thoughts on Clinton.

The US-Israel relationship was badly strained during the Obama administration because of tensions between the White House and Netanyahu stretching back years. The animosity began with differences in policy over Israeli settlements, the peace process and Iran but became a personal and often public conflict.

"The Obama White House-Bibi relationship is obviously deteriorating to the point of no return," Eizenstat wrote in March 2015.

"This obviously places Hillary in an extremely difficult position, caught between the president she served and the organized parts of the Jewish community," Eizenstat wrote to Sullivan.

Key Jewish supporters, including Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban, warned Clinton that she needed to "differentiate herself from Obama on Israel."

Israeli views on Clinton

Israeli officials themselves, however, seemed to distinguish between the two, according to Eizenstat. While Netanyahu reportedly dislikes Obama, he sees Clinton positively, according to one December 2015 email from Eizenstat.

Eizenstat quoted a "senior Israeli official who is very close to the Prime Minister" as telling him that Netanyahu and Clinton have a "surprising good relationship," that the Israeli leader finds her "easy to work with" and believes that she's more "instinctively sympathetic to Israel than the White House."

In the same December email, Eizenstat recounted the concerns of the senior Israeli source. The official worried that a Clinton administration would be focused on "the Palestinian peace process and two-state solution, rather than on the external threats to Israel," including Iran, the militant Lebanon-based group Hezbollah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Eizenstat clarified in a later email that the confidante of Netanyahu's was concerned Clinton's administration would be full of "officials of this bent. He was less worried about HRC's own views."

During her tenure as secretary of state, Clinton initially sent Mideast envoy George Mitchell to try to convene talks, an effort that fizzled in 2011 with Mitchell's resignation.

Clinton then briefly toyed with the idea of trying to lead negotiations herself, but decided against it because the time wasn't right, officials said at the time.

And as America's top diplomat in 2009 and 2010, Clinton was the voice for tougher US rhetoric on Israeli settlement construction in the contested West Bank, which Palestinians see as the basis for the state they hope to establish. Netanyahu claimed that administration officials told him "not one brick" more could be added to settlements in order to give nascent peace talks a chance.

But in her 2014 memoir, "Hard Choices," Clinton said she thought the approach was a mistake. "In retrospect, our early, hard line on settlements didn't work," she wrote.

Still, she criticized the policy the same year, telling CNN's Fareed Zakaria that settlements were "my biggest complaint with the Israeli government."

"The continuing settlements, which have been denounced by successive American administrations on both sides of the aisle, are clearly a terrible signal to send if at the same time you claim you're looking for a two-state solution," she said, referring to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

More recently, in March, she told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that "as president, I would continue the pursuit of direct negotiations," while "everyone has to do their part by avoiding damaging actions, including with respect to settlements."

Looking for ways to boost Clinton

Throughout the emails, staff debated how to amplify the message that Clinton would be different -- and better -- on Israel than the White House and get it across to the public. Two aides discussed a July 2015 Politico article headlined, "Hillary Clinton to Jewish donors: I'll be better for Israel than Obama," and wondered whether they needed to "push that angle harder over the next few days."

But in a May 2015 message, Podesta had pushed back on someone worried about people Americans who might see Clinton as the "most unfriendly to Israel in our history, worse than Obama."

Podesta responded, "that's a bit crazy. Obama developed a real feud with Bibi, but she has been a staunch defender of Israel since her Senate days."

Podesta told the concerned writer of many prominent American Jewish supporters, such as Saban, "who would not be with her if she wasn't totally committed to Israeli security."

The intersection of politics and Israel comes up again and again in the emails, including from Saban himself. In February he sent her staffers a message with the subject "Florida Florida Florida."

The message quoted an article about the state's 500,000 Jewish voters and a poll showing 61% of Floridians opposed the Iran deal. The article details how Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was using the issue of Israel and the Iran deal to try to peel voters away from Republican primary rival Donald Trump.

"I know you know," Saban wrote, "but just wanted to share."

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