Even as she moves to contain the damage from her conduct during a West Bank visit last week with Yasir Arafat’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton is facing new charges from her opponent that she has abandoned her declared support for Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.
Firing back, Clinton’s campaign is accusing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of "playing politics with the peace process."
The controversy suggests that with one year until the two face off in an expected Senate race, both sides already are waging war for undecided Jewish votes seen as crucial to victory.
Both presumptive candidates (neither has declared) will make pitches for Jewish support in separate appearances early next month: Giuliani at a Dec. 1 forum sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition, Clinton in a meeting with leaders of the Orthodox Union tentatively scheduled for mid-December.
Observers and analysts this week said Clinton overcoming the image of sitting quietly as Suha Arafat accused Israel of poisoning Arab women and children (and then kissing her afterward) is key to her survival as a viable candidate.
But compounding the first lady’s troubles this week was a comment she made in Jordan on the day after her ill-fated trip to Ramallah, regarding the final status of Jerusalem.
According to media reports, Clinton told reporters: "I don’t think it’s useful to comment on any of the issues that are part of final-status negotiations, and I certainly will not."
The director of Giuliani’s Senate exploratory committee, Bruce Teitelbaum, said this was a retreat from her stated support for Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in a July letter to the OU.
"If she really believed commenting on the status of Jerusalem would harm the peace process, why did she for the first time declare her personal support for an undivided Jerusalem … to an Orthodox Jewish group?" he asked. "Either you’ve got a position or you don’t."
To what question Clinton was responding is unclear. According to some published reports, Clinton was asked if she would reiterate her earlier position on Jerusalem. But according to a report on WCBS-2, Clinton was commenting on a Palestinian leader’s request that she support a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
Howard Wolfson, the spokesman for Clintonís Senate exploratory committee headquarters in New York, said he did not know the question, but reiterated that Clinton "is absolutely committed to ensuring that Jerusalem is the undivided and eternal capital of Israel."
Asked why Clinton did not say so in Jordan, Wolfson said: "I don’t know. I wasn’t there."
Fallout from the trip has fueled speculation among both allies and critics of Clinton that her campaign is on the verge of implosion.
"It’s on life support," said one Democratic insider, who said discussions had taken place over who would enter the breech should Clinton bow out of the race. A prime candidate is former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, the source said.
But Judith Hope, chair of the state Democratic Committee, insisted Tuesday that she had given the matter no thought. "It is such a remote possibility, I don’t lose any sleep over it," she said.
"Hillary Clinton is deeply committed to this race. What happened in Israel is she was ambushed and made the best of a very unfortunate incident. I think she’s a very strong candidate … and she’ll be one of the strongest defenders of Israel the state has ever seen."
Analysts say Clinton, a Democrat, will need to increase her share of the Jewish vote from around half to two-thirds in order to win, while Giuliani (a Republican who can count on other bases such as upstate voters and conservatives) needs to hold onto the roughly one third he now commands.
The appearance at the Orthodox Union (her first open forum with a Jewish group) would give Clinton the opportunity to flesh out positions on Israel that many consider to be murky, if not contradictory.
Before she began exploring a Senate run, Clinton declared that it was "in the long-term interests of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state," angering some Jewish voters. But last June at a UJA-Federation dinner, she spoke out against the unilateral declaration of such a state.
"If peace is to be lasting, it has to be negotiated," she said at that time.
A month later she wrote the Jerusalem letter to the OU saying it was her personal view that Jerusalem should be Israel’s capital while vowing that she would take no position she deemed harmful to Israel’s security. Critics took the latter statement to mean she would not push for the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem, a move her husband’s administration has actively resisted.
OU leaders are likely to press her on those subjects, as well as on the fate of Israel spy Jonathan Pollard, on whom she has steadfastly avoided a position.
Giuliani has been more forthcoming with his Israel views, frequently contrasting them with Clinton’s and apparently appealing to conservative Jewish voters. He favors moving the American embassy immediately and supports clemency for Pollard. This week he said there was "no moral equivalence between Israel and the Palestinian Authority." He has taken no position, however, on Palestinian statehood.
Since Giuliani and Clinton agree on many domestic issues, Israel policy (long a staple of New York Senate races) is likely to become an increasing point of contention in the race.
"You can expect to see TV spots of her kissing Arafat that talk about terrorism," said Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf.
Even supporters of the first lady admitted this week that Clinton’s silence in the face of Arafat’s defamatory remarks in Ramallah could prove harmful to her campaign.
"It’s a political negative," said Rabbi Menachem Genack, who is administrator of the kashrut division of the OU, but spoke on his own behalf. Rabbi Genack is a frequent White House visitor and has close ties to the Clintons.
"She’s a victim of this kind of rhetoric, but it would have been inappropriate for her to walk off the stage at that time. This was obviously bad advance work by her staff," he said.
A key confidante of Clinton’s said the trip to Ramallah was made at the behest of Israeli government officials. "She was asked to go by people in the Barak government to promote the peace process and keep the U.S. viewed by the parties as an honest broker," said Jack Bendheim, a Riverdale chemicals magnate who recently hosted a fund-raiser for Clinton that netted more than $50,000.
Bendheim, who also is closely connected to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak as chairman of the dovish Israel Policy Forum, cited a "senior adviser" to Barak, whom he declined to name, as his source.
Bendheim’s account contradicts one published report that Israelis had warned Clinton to steer clear of Suha Arafat because of her history of erratic behavior. An Israeli official in the U.S., who spoke on condition of anonymity, insisted Israel played no role in the decision.
"Whoever recommended going to Ramallah did a disservice to her politically, personally and to the U.S.-Israeli relationship," said the official.
Despite predictions of doom, the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council insisted that Clinton can overcome the bad publicity and prevail in the race.
"Israel is far less threatened today, and so its survival is not as salient an issue in New York as it was 10 or 20 years ago," said Ira Forman. "She can recover from this with a concerted effort to have the Jewish community in New York learn who Hillary Clinton is. The good news is that, with a year left, she has plenty of time to do it."