Hillary Rodham Clinton began a series of meetings with Jewish leaders this week amid signs that her recent proclamation that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel has yielded dubious benefits and a new poll that showed her Jewish support plummeting.
Clinton, now all but certain to enter the race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, met here on Monday with Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the umbrella for 54 national groups, at the start of her latest trip to New York. Meetings with other local Jewish communal officials are scheduled, sources tell The Jewish Week. Hoenlein would not comment on the nature of Monday’s meeting.
The meetings come as a new Marist College poll showed a 20 percent drop among statewide Jewish voters, to 37 percent from 57 percent in April. The drop is far steeper than that of general voters, from 43 to 41 percent. Jews comprised about 8 percent of the 515 people surveyed. The overall margin of error is plus or minus 4 percent, with a larger margin for subgroups.
The poll was taken July 11 and 12, shortly after the release last week of a letter by Clinton to Orthodox Union president Mandell Ganchrow. In a July 2 reply to a request from Ganchrow on June 8 that she detail her position on Jerusalem sovereignty, Clinton declared that "I personally consider Jerusalem the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel."
The Jerusalem statement may have been a response to her nascent campaign’s sense of trouble among Jewish voters, said Marist pollster Lee Miringoff.
"There is every indication that the Clinton side must have known something about this problem and tried to address it," he said.
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson denied such a scenario. He had no comment on the poll. "Hillary Clinton has always been a strong supporter of a safe and secure Israel, and is confident that if she runs she will receive overwhelming support from Jews in New York," he said.
Following the release of the letter, there was barely a press report that did not contain the word "pander," and Arab Americans joined hawkish Jews in denouncing it. But Wolfson said the first lady had no regrets.
"This is what she believes," he said of the letter. "It wasn’t designed for political effect."
Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a likely Senate candidate, now holds a 12-point lead among Jewish voters, according to the Marist poll. But Israel issues seem not to be a central factor. Asked whether Giuliani or Clinton would be the stronger supporter of Israel, Jews were divided 38-38 percent, with the remainder undecided.
Miringoff said Clinton was sliding among many groups, particularly upstate and suburban voters as her campaign gains momentum.
Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said the poll was inconsequential. "This is a very small sample of Jews on which to base a trend," he says. "But if there is a downward trend it’s because her statements on Israel are seen as contradictory."
Clinton has previously spoken out in favor of Palestinian statehood.According to many reports, Clinton has been trying to distinguish her views from those of her husband. But her Jerusalem stance is not regarded as a significant break from the policy of President Clinton. Pundits and political opponents were quick to point out that the president made a similar declaration during his 1992 campaign. He has since resisted congressional efforts to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, citing national security concerns.
In the letter to Ganchrow, Clinton assured the OU leader that she would "be an active, committed advocate for a strong and secure Israel, able to live in peace with its neighbors, with the United States embassy located in its capital, Jerusalem." She then added, "Of course, the timing of such a move must be sensitive to Israel’s interest in achieving a secure peace with its neighbors," a stance similar to that of her husband.
Clinton appears to have left herself wiggle room by not elaborating on the timing issue, or spelling out how she would vote as a senator on removing the president’s power to waive the law requiring the embassy move.
"This is not a statement of policy but a slogan to which [Yasir] Arafat and the Palestinian Authority can subscribe," said Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It does not preclude designating a part of East Jerusalem as a capital of a future Palestinian state. Nothing in [the] letter suggests that she opposes recognition in some concrete political terms of Jerusalem’s Palestinian identity."
Mitchell Moss, director of the Taub Center for Urban Policy at New York University, said the letter indicates that "The new Hillary is trying to get elected in the State of New York and she’s looking for every vote, including those that the mayor thought were guaranteed to be his."
But the Jerusalem letter may have invited more troubles than it solved. The American Arab-Anti-Discrimination Committee blasted the phrase "eternal capital" as "factually, legally and historically wrong."
Hawkish Jewish groups were also unimpressed. "We reject Hillary’s convenient reversal of policy on Israel," said Herbert Zweibon, president of Americans for a Safe Israel, in a statement. "Her new words belie her long-standing embrace of enemies of Israel."
The Jewish Week has learned that the response to Ganchrow followed a two-hour meeting between the first lady and David Luchins, a senior adviser to Moynihan and his Jewish liaison. The meeting, at Moynihan’s Washington apartment, took place June 24, two weeks after Clinton received the OU letter.
"We had a half-hour conversation about the Middle East, most of which was spent on Jerusalem," Luchins told The Jewish Week in a phone interview from Israel, where he is lecturing to participants in the Jerusalem Fellowship, a program sponsored by Yeshivah Aish HaTorah.
Luchins, a vice president of the OU, said he detailed to the first lady Moynihan’s position on Jerusalem and was told it was similar to hers. "I was very pleased with what I heard," said Luchins. He then viewed a draft of the letter and declared it "superb." Luchins said he did not mention that he was a board member of the OU.
Luchins said he did not expect the statement to win over supporters of Giuliani, who once excluded Arafat from a United Nations-related cultural event, then ejected him when he showed up uninvited.
"I wouldn’t recommend to her to try to out-right-wing Giuliani," said Luchins. "He will still get the votes of people opposed to Oslo, people who can never forgive Bill Clinton because he supported the peace process. Giuliani is geared toward people who oppose the Oslo process and probably will do very well [with them]."
Contrasting the mayor’s position with that of Clinton, the director of Giuliani’s Senate exploratory committee, Bruce Teitelbaum, said Giuliani "believes the embassy should be moved immediately, without hesitation, and as a U.S. senator that would be the policy he would vigorously pursue."
With 16 months until the election, the attention on Israel indicates that Jews again will be vigorously courted. In last year’s Senate race, incumbent Republican Alfonse D’Amato and Democratic challenger Charles Schumer waged war over Israel and Holocaust issues. Jewish voters were 12 percent of the overall turnout.
In 1996, 77 percent of New York Jews voted for President Clinton. But the early Jewish numbers are cause for concern to his wife, according to Miringoff of the Marist Polling Institute.
"A Democrat running statewide has to take the lion’s share of the Jewish vote," he said, "and that has not happened for her right now." Staff writer Eric J. Greenberg contributed to this report.