Jerusalem — While British Prime Minister Tony Blair practically did cartwheels to avoid courting controversy during his visit to Israel this week, New York City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, also on a whirlwind tour, took no such precautions.
Vallone, the veteran Queens politician who hopes to be the Democratic candidate for governor, arranged a personal visit Tuesday to the Jewish enclave in Hebron, on the West Bank. His itinerary also included official visits to Har Homa, the contested building site on the outskirts of Jerusalem that has spurred Palestinian outrage, and the infamous Western Wall tunnel. The decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to open an extension of the tunnel in the fall of 1996 resulted in violent confrontations between Israeli and Palestinian security forces and the loss of more than 70 lives.
Accompanied by leaders of Hebron’s tiny Jewish community, Vallone toured the three heavily guarded “neighborhoods” — in reality no more than clusters of a few houses — where about 500 Jews live among more than 100,000 Arabs. Pointing to the Arab houses located directly across from the enclaves on adjacent hillsides, Noam Arnon, a settler spokesman, told Vallone that the Jews are often attacked by their Arab neighbors.
Vallone’s trip precedes by a few days a delegation from New York State, scheduled for April 28, that will include Gov. George Pataki, Comptroller H. Carl McCall and the chairman of the Empire State Development Corp., Charles Gargano.
On his way to visit the Avraham Aveinu synagogue, which was desecrated by Arabs in 1948 and painstakingly restored in 1976, Vallone stopped to speak with Leah Hochbaum, a mother of three who moved from the Lower East Side to Hebron almost three years ago, and Jacob Bennett, a young soldier from America.
“I’m originally from Baltimore,” the gun-toting corporal told Vallone, “but before making aliyah I worked as a buyer at Bloomingdale’s in New York.” The contrast between Bennett’s army fatigues and the image of Bloomingdale’s elicited a round of laughs from Vallone and his small entourage.
The mood turned serious minutes later when Vallone toured a memorial to the dozens of Jews who were murdered by Arabs in what the residents call the “first Hebron massacre” in 1929. In the room of the memorial, stark black-and-white photographs of those who died are illuminated by memorial candles.
Thanking his visitor, Arnon said that it is “important for non-Jewish personalities [like Vallone] to support and understand the Jewish community of Hebron, to support justice and the right of Jews to have a homeland.”
Vallone, a Catholic, said he attends church every day. It is very rare, Arnon said, “to find people willing to support justice and to not break under the weight of Arab propaganda.”
In return, Vallone said that he would pray for the peace of Hebron during his coming visit to the Western Wall.
Asked by journalists whether he was “endorsing” Vallone’s candidacy, Arnon said, “I do not want to interfere in the internal business or politics of New Yorkers. The leaders of New York all support the Jewish cause and the rights of Jews to live in Israel. Mayor [Rudolph] Giuliani and Governor [George] Pataki are known supporters of the Jews in this country, and we thank God for their support.”
On the trip back to Jerusalem, Vallone was asked whether the trip was timed to coincide with his announced candidacy.
Noting that this is his third visit to Israel, he said that “two years ago, the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin invited me to Israel’s 50th anniversary celebrations when we hosted him in New York. Both the 50th anniversary and the 3,000th anniversary of Jerusalem have been very big deals in New York, and I’m here on behalf of all New Yorkers.”
He added that he planned to present a resolution, passed by the City Council in honor of the jubilee, during his scheduled meeting with Netanyahu.
Vallone said that his decision to visit Hebron, which is normally not on the itinerary of Israel’s official visitors, was motivated by a personal desire to see the situation firsthand.
“I’ve heard a great deal about Hebron and wanted to see it visually. Now that I’m here, it’s confirmed what I already believed: that there is a nonacceptance by extremists on the Arab side of how much Israel has given [to the Palestinians during the peace process],” he said. “Abraham the Patriarch is buried here. How can anyone resent Jews living here, too?”
Vallone rejected the notion that visiting controversial sites could alienate some Jewish voters.
“I understand that these are divisive issues in the Jewish community, but it is not a divisive issue for me or the New Yorkers I know personally,” he said.
Jonathan Jacoby, director of the Israel Policy Forum, a leadership group supporting the peace process, said politicians like Vallone were not getting a balanced view of Israel.
“It’s wonderful that American political leaders are going to Israel to celebrate the 50th anniversary,” Jacoby said. “It’s important that they see Israel in its entirety and make themselves aware of all points of view and perspectives.
“If they limit themselves to a particular set of opinions and perspectives, it is unfortunate and shortsighted.”