The organizations representing Jewish Republicans and Democrats were trading shots this week over the apparent involvement of two top Israeli leaders in the 2000 Senate race here.
Neither Prime Minister Ehud Barak, leader of the One Israel party, nor Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert of Likud have made explicit endorsements in the race. But within the span of two weeks, both politicians offered praise for the two presumptive candidates: Barak for Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat, and Olmert for Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Olmert — who last month prematurely blasted Clinton for avoiding East Jerusalem (which she did not) while singing Giuliani’s praises — is expected to attend a fund raiser for Giuliani on Dec. 15 at the private Park Avenue home of Giuliani supporter Harry Rubenstein.
The fund-raising trip “embodies the very definition of a foreign dignitary involving himself in our own domestic affairs,” says Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “Mayor Giuliani should have the good sense to cancel [the event] so as not to jeopardize the crucial relationship between the U.S. and Israel.”
Forman’s comments come a week after Matthew Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition blasted Barak for praising Clinton in a meeting with Jewish leaders here. Barak called the Clintons “true friends” of Israel and praised the first lady’s controversial trip to Israel as “highly successful.”
Barak is “coming dangerously close to involving himself in an American political campaign,” Brooks told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
It is not the first time an Israeli has been accused of partiality in American politics. During the 1980 presidential race, former defense minister Ezer Weizman — currently Israel’s president –was perceived as supporting Jimmy Carter in his tight race against Ronald Reagan.
But the Senate controversy is significant in that it signifies the segments of the New York Jewish community to whom each candidate expects to appeal.
While Giuliani has enjoyed broad Jewish support in his three mayoral bids, his most vehement supporters are Orthodox Jews to the right of the spectrum who are critics of the Oslo accords, as is Olmert. Clinton, on the other hand, has surrounded herself with dovish, mostly secular Jews who support Oslo and the policies of the Labor Party folded into Barak’s One Israel coalition. A majority of American Jews support those policies, including the creation of a Palestinian state.
But with segments of American Jewry already sharply at odds over the peace process, the perception of Israeli interference could have a negative impact on the Senate race.
“The blatant entry of Israeli politicians will only further polarize the race for New York’s Jewish community,” says Gilbert Kahn, a political science professor at Kean College in New Jersey and a Manhattan resident. “It will create an even higher level of mistrust for the victor to surmount within the Jewish community after the election.”
A worse outcome would be a strain on U.S.-Israel relations. Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the GOP presidential frontrunner, is a strong Giuliani backer who might hold a grudge against Barak if he is elected president and Clinton beats Giuliani, points out one Republican operative.
Israel’s consul general in New York, Shmuel Sisso, insisted that Barak’s warm comments about Clinton should not be taken as an endorsement. “I don’t think Barak meant to interfere with the race,” he said in an interview.
“He met with Giuliani one month ago, and a 15-minute talk became an hour-long discussion.”
Barak did not, however meet with Giuliani in the most recent visit, during which he praised Clinton. Sisso said there was no Israeli law preventing officials from taking sides in foreign political races, but insisted that was not happening. He declined to comment on Olmert’s appearance at the Giuliani fund-raiser.
During a City Hall visit on Nov. 8, Olmert said he knew “no greater friend” of Jerusalem than Giuliani. Asked if that was an endorsement, Olmert said he was “not in this business“ of making endorsements.
Last week, Giuliani supporters were having a field day with news that Clinton would be the guest of honor at a Boston fund-raiser hosted by, among other people, attorney Robert Crowe.Crowe, a seasoned Democratic fund-raiser, has defended Swiss banks in the class-action suit filed by Holocaust-era depositors.
Now it turns out that Giuliani has accepted more than $10,000 in campaign contributions from employees of Swiss banks that colluded with the Nazis during World War II. According to federal election filings obtained by The Jewish Week, Friends of Giuliani received $3,000 from Thaddeus Walkowicz of Credit Swiss First Boston. That contribution was made in June, three months after the $1.25 million Swiss bank settlement was announced. But Giuliani also received more than $7,000 from officials of Credit Suisse, Union Bank of Switzerland and other companies during his 1993 and 1997 mayoral runs.
“If anyone wants to play the guilt-by-association game, Giuliani has quite a bit of explaining to do,” said Clinton’s spokesman, Howard Wolfson.
Reached during a fund-raising trip in Texas Tuesday night, Friends of Giuliani director Bruce Teitelbaum said he would look into the contributions, but had no immediate comment.
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said he was unaware of what role Crowe played in the Swiss defense. But he said Clinton “was a central figure in bringing about justice for Holocaust survivors and directly intervened with the president to set up a meeting with [WJC President] Edgar Bronfman.”
Steinberg said the Clintons were part of the “oddest political alliance in history” in helping Holocaust survivors retrieve their assets. That alliance included former Republican Sen. Al D’Amato, city Comptroller Alan Hevesi, Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat and state Comptroller H. Carl McCall.
The next Democrat expected to endorse Giuliani for Senate is City Councilman Michael Nelson, sources tell The Jewish Week.
Both Nelson and his former boss, State Sen. Carl Kruger — who endorsed Giuliani last week — represent areas of southern Brooklyn that heavily supported Giuliani for mayor. While Kruger belongs to the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club in Canarsie, he has close ties with the Highway Democratic Club in Sheepshead Bay, headed by powerful pro-Giuliani district leader Michael Geller. Kruger depends on the heavily Jewish votes in the southern part of his district — Geller’s bailiwick — to stay in office.
Also depending on the same voters is Assemblywoman Lena Cymbrowitz of Sheepshead Bay, although she is considered unlikely to support Giuliani. Cymbrowitz has close ties with Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a top Hillary booster. Her husband, Steven, was recently demoted from a position in the city Housing Authority shortly after she angered Giuliani by voting to help Silver repeal the city commuter tax.
But Cymbrowitz won’t commit to either side.
“I need to see who is a declared candidate in the race before I can decide,” she said.
Meanwhile, Canarsie Councilman Herbert Berman — the leader of Kruger’s Democratic club — is reportedly concerned about the impact of Kruger’s slamming of Clinton on Berman’s race for city comptroller. Clinton campaign consultant Harold Ickes asked for, and got, a statement from Berman disavowing Kruger’s endorsement, a Democratic source said.
Berman, who was planning a fund-raiser Tuesday night, could not be reached for comment.