The final status of Jerusalem, Iran’s growing missile capability and a declared Palestinian state are likely to become hot-button political issues over the next two years, according to pro-Israel activists looking toward the 2000 Senate campaign.
Although the security of Israel always plays a major role in New York political campaigns, upcoming developments could make the race to succeed retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan a contest of unprecedented attention on the Jewish state.
"This is a crucial period in the peace process," says Neil Goldstein, director of the Northeast region of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "In addition to the [upcoming] final-status talks [between Israel and the Palestinians], Iran is developing missile manufacturing capacity and may have nuclear weapons within 18 months.
"That’s exactly the period that this campaign will be played out."
The race could become particularly interesting in the unlikely event that First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton seeks the Democratic nomination. Clinton has publicly endorsed the declaration of a Palestinian state, a stance not taken by any of the other Democrats whose names have been mentioned as possible candidates. These currently include Reps. Nita Lowey of Queens and Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan, Public Advocate Mark Green and Treasury Secretary Robert Reich.
Although most pundits virtually rule it out, the first lady has not discouraged speculation that she will run.
Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat has said he would declare a Palestinian state in May, but has recently backed away from such talk, fearing that it would propel a right-wing candidate into office in Israel’s election that month. If a state is declared, the United States would have to decide whether to recognize the entity, and candidates will have to spell out their position.
"[Rev.] Al Sharpton is running," said one Jewish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "What’s he going to say about Palestine and Jerusalem? What will the other candidates say about the role of the U.S. in the final-status talks." The official, whose organization is enjoined from taking political positions, speculated that support of a Palestinian state would be detrimental to a candidate’s prospects.
"In order to win New York, a Democrat needs over two-thirds of the Jewish vote. I believe that would bring an individual below that threshold."
Sharpton did not return a call for comment.
One candidate who is likely to make Israel’s security a key campaign issue is Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Sources say the mayor will announce a bid for Moynihan’s seat later this month. Giuliani is likely to remind supporters that he kicked Arafat out of a New York event in 1996, and he has said a Palestinian state would threaten Israel’s security.
But aside from the thorny Palestinian state issue, which may divide Jewish voters and energize a growing Muslim population, candidates may have to develop positions on other sensitive Middle East topics such as:
Israel’s internal pluralism debate.
What to do about Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
Whether to support renewed development of U.S. missile defense technology that could protect Israel from Syrian and Iranian attacks.
Should the U.S. become more or less involved in the peace negotiations?
"The more delicate and sensitive the situation, the more urgent these things become to Jewish voters," said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
But a senior aide to Moynihan, David Luchins, said Israel had become less of a central issue to Jewish voters in recent years. A poll in 1976, the year Moynihan was first elected, found that 55 percent of voters considered Israel their most important concern.
"In 1994, we took the same poll and it was 27 percent," he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "expressed great consternation" to a visiting group of Americans that some of President Bill Clinton’s former advisers are now in Israel working to defeat him in the May 17 election, said Rep. Mike Forbes (R-L.I.) in a phone call from Jerusalem.
Forbes said Netanyahu told the group on Tuesday he was disappointed that Clinton allowed James Carville and other strategists closely linked to him to work for Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. The consultants work is significant since Clinton was criticized during Israel’s 1996 election for comments that came just short of endorsing Labor’s Shimon Peres.
The three-term congressman, who came within a hair’s breadth of becoming a deputy speaker before his ally, Bob Livingston (R-La.) stepped down as speaker-designate and resigned from Congress, charged the president with involvement "in the internal politics of Israel. It is clear that they are here with the president’s approval."
P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the National Security Council, insisted the U.S. takes no position on the election. "If various candidates have sought political advisers from the U.S. to assist them, those are decisions for the candidates to make," he said. "The U.S. and the president played no role in those decisions."
Forbes is in Israel on a one-week fact-finding mission to assess the mood in the country and to meet with members of the Knesset to "get their take on events." He said he also planned to join a 15-member group led by Florida millionaire Dr. Irving Moscowitz in their meetings with Israeli leaders of the nationalist camp. Among those in the group is Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn).
In addition to Netanyahu, the group met with Uzi Landau, who is challenging Netanyahu for the Likud nomination for prime minister, and Avigdor Kahalani, the minister of internal security. It was to meet with Benny Begin, who is running for prime minister as a right-wing candidate.
"What is clear in these meetings is that there is every expectation that the folks on the right will unite behind Netanyahu," said Forbes. "Some of those in the center believe the Labor Party would give away most of Israel and its security."
It was Forbes’ fourth trip to Israel and his first to the Israeli enclave in Hebron, which he visited on Tuesday. He said he was "very, very moved" by the visit, in which he saw a memorial to the 62 Jews who were slaughtered there by Arabs in 1929. And he said he met with the widow of a rabbi who was slain in his home by an Arab terrorist.
Corey Bearak, a former assistant to Councilman Sheldon Leffler (D-Queens), has joined the staff of Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. The move is seen as helping Ferrer gain ground in Queens for his 2001 mayoral bid.
Former Brooklyn Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman has been appointed by President Clinton to the Nazi War Criminal Records Interagency Working Group. Holtzman, also former city comptroller and Brooklyn District Attorney, sponsored legislation in Congress authorizing the deportation of Nazi war criminals.
State Sen. Seymour Lachman (D-Brooklyn) says he will push state officials including Jack Ryan, chancellor of the Board of Regents, and Richard Mills, commissioner of education, to require teaching of the Holocaust and other atrocities in charter schools. "I’m confident this can be done without legislation," said Lachman, who oversaw the first Holocaust curriculum in public schools as president of the Board of Education in the 1970s. Last month officials negotiated over mandating such curricula in newly created charter schools, but reached no agreement.
Staff Writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.