Peace process opponents are hoping her upcoming trip to Israel will prove a political and diplomatic minefield for first lady Hillary Clinton, not a boost to her expected 2000 Senate campaign in New York.
But supporters say Clinton, burned once over her support for Palestinian statehood, is a skilled politician who will tread very lightly during her trip to Israel and Jordan, which begins on June 26.
Administration officials, aware that every public event and private meeting will be taken as a signal about U.S. policy in the region, are working to make sure her itinerary offers the fewest possible opportunities for generating headlines.
Clinton, they say, will visit women’s groups, social service agencies and what are being described as “coexistence type” organizations. The goal is to avoid
anything that could be interpreted as a shift in administration position on key Israeli-Palestinian disputes.
At the same time, Clinton’s political supporters want the trip to provide a political bounce with New York’s critical Jewish electorate.
But the usual media ops for visiting pols — flights over the Golan Heights, visits to historic sites in Jerusalem and meetings with generals — may be off limits because of the political and diplomatic risks.
“This trip reflects the complications of being both the first lady and a Senate candidate,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “People will be watching very closely. It will be a difficult line for her to walk.”
Last May Clinton angered some Jewish leaders by stating that lands in Gaza and the West Bank that are the objects of ongoing negotiations “should be considered and will evolve into a functioning modern state.”
The White House quickly announced that Clinton was speaking only for herself, but her comments, along with her willingness to invite Arab-American and Muslim groups into the White House, continue to be a sore point with right-of-center Jews.
A Jewish Democrat who has been critical of the administration’s peace process policies predicted that many Jews in New York will spurn her candidacy no matter what she does in Israel because of her sympathy for Palestinian statehood “and the fact that she is seen widely as the ‘pro-Arab voice’ in the White House.”
This source said that Clinton’s Israel trip will be rife with opportunities for new gaffes.
“People will ask her about a Palestinian state, about settlements, about the Golan Heights, about Arafat. She can’t go around Israel saying absolutely nothing, can she?”
But supporters say Clinton, a deft politician, has demonstrated she can field such questions in public and private meetings with Jewish groups since the Palestinian state flap.
Political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg of John Hopkins University said that “it’s a very easy trip for her. Jews in New York are so eager to vote for her that she doesn’t have to do much more than set foot in Israel to get them to overlook her Palestinian state remarks.”
Ginsberg said he would like to see “serious questions raised about her views on Israel as part of this trip. But I don’t see that happening. The Jewish vote is hers for the taking, except among a small minority.”
Hillary And Hadassah
Right-of-center groups are also mobilizing to fight plans by Hadassah to award Clinton their “Henrietta Szold Award” at the group’s annual convention in Washington at the end of July.
Officials of the 300,000 member Zionist group stress that the decision to give Clinton their highest honor — which was approved overwhelmingly by Hadassah’s lay leadership — is based on the first lady’s extensive humanitarian efforts, especially her advocacy on behalf of children and women.
Previous recipients have included former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
But the Zionist Organization of America sees the award as another slap at Israel.
“We’ve expressed our concern that we don’t think a Zionist organization should be giving an award to someone who has called for a PLO State with unrestricted sovereignty, and who sat on a board that gave grants to the pre-1993 PLO,” said Morton Klein, ZOA’s president, referring to Clinton’s work with the leftist New World Foundation.
“We think Henrietta Szold would not have supported giving an award named in her honor to Ms. Clinton.”
Jewish organizations with a stake in the federal budget — which means just about every group that provides a vital health or human service — are watching with dismay as the Republican Congress and the Democratic administration play a game of partisan chicken over the Fiscal Year 2000 budget.
That battle could come to a head this week or next as House Speaker Dennis Hastert tries to impose order on his feuding forces and mollify conservative rebels, who insist the government abide by 1997 budget caps that guarantee sweeping cuts despite the new federal surplus.
On Tuesday, Hastert, in a closed session, urged Republican lawmakers to put their differences aside and pass critical spending bills. There were reports some funds could be shifted back to domestic spending programs — but even under the best case scenarios, Jewish leaders are worried about significant cuts.
“If the budget caps aren’t raised, some very important programs for our community are going to be cut in a very serious way,” said Diana Aviv, director of the Washington Action office of the United Jewish Communities.
She pointed to programs for senior citizens — housing, health and nutrition programs, in particular — as vulnerable.
“And that’s the best case situation,” she said. “When you add to that the defense increases before Congress and the tax cuts, the reductions in vital programs could be even worse.”
Jewish groups, she said, are focusing their efforts on raising budget caps restricting health and human service spending.