Hillary Rodham Clinton, meeting at the White House this week with 25 rabbis, appeared to back away from her previous support for a Palestinian state, reportedly saying the issue should be left to Israel and the Palestinians.
But Clinton’s Communications Director Marsha Berry, after consulting with the first lady, told The Jewish Week that Clinton’s “personal position” favoring a Palestinian state remains unchanged.
The remarks come as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is turning up the heat on Clinton on the Palestinian statehood issue. They are being touted as potential opponents in the 2000 New York Senate race.
The issue arose Monday afternoon in a private White House meeting with a new national group of rabbis (see story, page 10.). Clinton was asked to clarify her controversial statement of last May favoring a Palestinian state, and according to Rabbi Marc Schneier, who attended the White House gathering, she replied: “It is up to the parties to negotiate final status.”
“She made her position very, very clear to all the rabbis,” said Rabbi Schneier, who was in the capital to launch his new organization, the North American Board of Rabbis, an interdenominational group.
Clinton in the spring had outraged some Jewish groups and caught the administration off guard when she said: “I think that it will be in the long-term interests of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state, to be a state that is responsible for its citizens’ well-being, a state that has responsibility for providing education and health care and economic opportunity to its citizens.”
The White House responded by distancing itself from her remarks, and Clinton since that time has not elaborated. U.S. policy has been to remain neutral on the issue of a Palestinian state and not prejudge the outcome of any final-status issues between Israel and the Palestinians.
But Berry, in providing the first lady’s most detailed explanation of her views on the issue, told The Jewish Week on Monday that Clinton’s response to the rabbis does not contradict her earlier position.
“All along she supported the administration’s position, but she had a personal position regarding what the long-term interest in the region is,” Berry said in a telephone interview. “They’re not mutually exclusive of one another.”
Berry added: “She has not changed her personal position regarding what she said last year. At the same time she supports the peace process.”
But some rabbis at the meeting said they believed Clinton did reshape her position, perhaps to mollify her audience and the Jewish voters in New York.
“She spoke … in terms agreeable to the ears that wanted to hear that — that she meant the parties will ultimately decide,” said Rabbi Albert Gabbai, an Orthodox rabbi from Philadelphia. “I’m not born yesterday. One has to read between the lines that she has political ambitions for the future.”
New Jersey Conservative Rabbi Jay Kornsgold said he was “very pleased” she clarified her position.
“Let’s face it, she knew who she was meeting with and she must have anticipated the questions,” he said. “She seemed genuine. I can’t say for sure whether she’s doing this because she may run for the Senate and that this may impress a lot of Jews in New York.”
But Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the influential foreign policy institute in the U.S., argued that Clinton’s dual positions are not in opposition at all.
“Obviously she is talking within an entirely new political context,” said Siegman, director of the council’s U.S. Middle East Project. “In principle and in theory, there is no contradiction. The best possible outcome is for there to be a Palestinian state that is recognized only through direct negotiations between the parties.”
Siegman called it unfortunate that “certain portions of the Jewish community in New York” become agitated at the thought of a Palestinian state, “even though a vast majority of the Israeli public, including the hawkish [Foreign Minister Ariel] Sharon has accepted the inevitability of that development.
“The fact that a statement like that by Hillary [last May] should evoke hysterical reaction in some quarters indicates how far behind certain portions of the American Jewish community are of the actual realities accepted by Israelis.”
But Siegman said the minority view is extremely vocal and they “create the impression that the political climate in New York embraces the most retrogressive position in order to win votes.”
Of the mayor’s recent attacks concerning Clinton’s position on Palestinian statehood, Siegman said Giuliani “has pandered to those primitive sensibilities in the Jewish community and has offered no enlightenment or leadership on this issue.”
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat who has supported Republican candidates, said there would be a mass defection of Jewish voters from the Democratic Party should Clinton run for Senate because of her support for a Palestinian state and “her love affair with Yasir Arafat.”