Sen. Charles Schumer pleaded with Orthodox leaders here this week not to prejudge Hillary Rodham Clinton’s positions on Israel, predicting that "her voting record will be just like mine."
Speaking with board members of the Orthodox Union at their Manhattan offices Monday night, the freshman Democrat, who has a strong pro-Israel record, urged the leaders to give the first lady and likely Senate candidate a chance to more fully explain her positions, rather than oppose her because of her statement last year in support of Palestinian statehood.
"The Jewish community is going to be very surprised with the stalwartness with which Hillary Clinton will support Israel and Jewish causes," said Schumer.
The former representative from Brooklyn, who unseated Republican Alfonse D’Amato last year, was responding to questions from OU leaders who remain wary of the first lady’s Middle East views: despite a letter from Clinton earlier this month insisting she would "be an active, committed advocate for a strong and secure Israel."
The much-publicized letter, in response to an inquiry from OU president Mandell Ganchrow, also declared her belief that Jerusalem is the "eternal and indivisible capital of Israel."
Following an informal address to the OU leaders, Schumer was asked by Ganchrow why Israel supporters shouldn’t dismiss Clinton’s letter as campaign pandering. "Talk is very cheap," said Ganchrow, who pointed out that the pro-Palestinian statement was made at an "inopportune moment," before Clinton was likely considering a campaign.
Schumer responded that Clinton had subsequently announced a more mainstream view that Palestinian statehood should only come about as a result of negotiations. The senator said he has since brought to Clinton’s attention that this stance means there should be no state without Israeli approval, and that she said "that is correct."
Schumer’s strong defense of the first lady comes at a time when she is scrambling to lay to rest continuous criticism in some Jewish segments on Israel issues. Last week, a small group of protestors picketed Hadassah because of its decision to honor Clinton at its upcoming convention.
Schumer’s comments also come as New York’s senior senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (whom Clinton hopes to succeed) and his senior adviser, David Luchins, appear to have taken the lead as the first lady’s advisers on Israel policy. Luchins, an OU official, was consulted on the first lady’s response to Ganchrow’s letter.
Schumer told the OU leaders he was "not her appointed spokesman," but was expressing his own opinions based on numerous "formative" conversations with Clinton on Israel. Pressed on questions left unanswered by Clinton’s letter to the OU regarding the movement of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Schumer said pending action by Congress could make the issue moot by the time the 2000 Senate race is held. Schumer is seeking an end to the waiver allowing President Clinton to prevent the embassy move based on security concerns. "I have the support of my colleagues to do that," he said. (The measure, however, is likely to be vetoed by the president.)
In response to a question by Julius Berman, a former head of both the OU and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Schumer insisted he was not supporting Clinton out of loyalty to a Democratic candidate: one who had campaigned for him last fall. "It would be embarrassing to me if I supported a candidate who turned out to be negative to Israel’s interests," he said. Acknowledging that he could not support a Republican, he said "there are many times when I have just been silent."
Berman later said that while he respected Schumer’s comments, "the jury is still out on [Clinton]. It will take much more than a letter with respect to the embassy issue for our community to adopt warmly to her nomination."
Prime Minister Ehud Barak, meanwhile, has reportedly been quietly urging Israel supporters to back off on the Jerusalem embassy issue while he concentrates on what he sees as more substantive matters, such as burgeoning peace talks with Syria.
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn, Queens), who succeeded Schumer in the House of Representatives, is joining the growing chorus of officials calling for the reopening of the 1994 murder case of Ari Halberstam. The 16-year-old chasidic student was shot to death on the Brooklyn Bridge by a Lebanese livery cab driver.
Weiner and 12 colleagues this week wrote Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate whether the incident was an act of terrorism.
"The evidence to support the classification of this case as an act of terrorism is overwhelming, and it is time the Justice Department took notice," said Weiner in a statement.