03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Clinton on Settlements: The Power of Words

In Hebrew there is a famous verse that says: "The tongue holds the power of life and death." This is a reference to scripture, as God created the world by his speech - "let there be light" and so there was light, etc... Such is the positive power of words. There is a negative side, too. Words can wound. The truth can hurt. And when uttered without the utmost care by a US Secretary of State in Jerusalem on the topic of settlements, they can reverberate throughout the world, sowing anger, doubt, and disappointment about US efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Clinton came to Jerusalem and got tripped up by her own words. She applauded Bibi's alleged willingness to take some steps to "restrain settlements." She used the powerful word "unprecedented" over and over. But she forgot to state explicitly that the US was still disappointed in him, that his efforts were not sufficient, and that US policy on settlements had absolutely not changed.


The Palestinians were predictably furious. Obama's credibility lost points in the Arab world. Clinton's efforts to undo the damage with much more careful words - planned, scripted, dotting every policy "i" and crossing ever policy 't" - helped a little, but for the most part the damage was already done. In the public's mind - in the media's mind - she had come to Jerusalem and caved, completely, to Bibi.

But Clinton's words hold out some hope, too. Her emphasis on negotiations is a good thing, not only because negotiations are the real goal here - negotiations that can actually resolve the settlements issue - but because this new focus can, hopefully, deny Netanyahu what he wants more than anything right now: more excuses to avoid negotiations.

Netanyahu knows the power of words and while he is more than happy if he can control the message 100% - through leaks, public statements, carefully managed quotes to friendly journalists - he fears the words that he might be forced to say if he enters negotiations. Words like "final status borders" and "removal of settlements" and "land for peace." The last thing Bibi wants right now is for final status negotiations to start. So he has been perfectly happy so long as the really hard questions were kept at bay with the ongoing battle over settlements and preconditions. This is what Netanyahu has been doing now for months - making settlements the only issue on the table. He has made Special Envoy Mitchell sweat hard on this, and the public's patience is getting shorter and shorter.

In fact, this situation suited all the opponents of negotiations, giving them a lot of room to maneuver and to undermine Obama's peace efforts. It gave Israeli and American Jewish right-wingers time to put pressure on the Congress to "ease the pressure on Israel" on the one hand, and it gave Arab hardliners and rejectionists the chance to pressure Abbas not to agree to anything but a full settlement freeze - not one brick - as a precondition for talks.

And we return, again, to the power of words. During this whole period of arguing over settlements, no news has been bad news. All the world has heard about the US-Israel talks on this issue is rumor and spin - words crafted to deliberately deceive or, if not deceive, then to create a very specific narrative on the issue to the benefit of Bibi and Bibi alone. It is a virtual word machine, and it's been run solely by Netanyahu's spin-system. And absent any formal declaration of what was agreed or achieved in those talks, and absent any counter-leaks or active public communications efforts by the US, the world has come to rely on, and generally believe, this spin-system.

Enough. We need to get to the negotiations already! That is what's really important here.

If we take Clinton's rather careless words in Jerusalem as fact, then we should actually be rather encouraged. She said that Netanyahu had agreed to "no new starts" which she offered as an example of a decision that "is unprecedented in the context of the prior two negotiations." Does this actually mean (gasp) that Netanyahu has agreed to no new construction starts in the settlements? If so, that is a great achievement - one that should rightly open the door for new and serious negotiations, if the Palestinians are interested.

However, we are inveterate skeptics. We welcome Clinton's words but we are much more interested in the words the Bibi's spinmeisters will send out into the world - words that will convey what Bibi really decided, what he really means to do. Who knows? Maybe he has agreed to this, or maybe Clinton was trying to use her words to box him into a position he had thus far been trying to avoid. We will watch and see.

There are lessons to be drawn from the Clinton visit. Lessons about using words carefully in this conflict. About being keenly aware that a misplaced word or a missing phrase will be analyzed in newsrooms across the globe. That an ill-crafted sentence will be parsed to death.

Or perhaps the lesson is that people - the media, the politicians, the analysts - will draw the conclusions they want, regardless of the words. Yes, words have power and should be used with care, but it is hard to avoid the impression - based on the zeal with which the media jumped on the non-story of Clinton's speech in Jerusalem - that a lot of people are more interested in seeing Obama fail than succeed. A lot of people are ready, even eager, for proof that this new American president who had the audacity to aim for Middle East peace from his first day in office, will fall flat on his face. It is like they are salivating at the thought that he has given up and given in, just like every US president before him. Proving the cynics and skeptics right.

I believe they are wrong. President Obama has identified Middle East peace as a top US national security interest. He is not going to permit his foreign policy to be derailed by media spin or a few ill-chosen (or missing) words in a statement by Secretary Clinton.

Co-authored by Lara Friedman