As she plans to cap her first year in office with a trip to Israel, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton believes she’s vanquished a “stereotype” about her support for the Jewish state.
“People who stood with me are glad they did,” Clinton told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview Tuesday. “A lot of people have come to me in the last year and told me they support me. It’s part of the process of standing on my own and being judged in reality, as opposed to some stereotype.”
Throughout her 1999-2000 campaign, Clinton was dogged by questions about her support of Israel, prompted by her hosting of anti-Israel Arab groups in the White House as first lady and her early support of Palestinian statehood, which she later said could only come about through negotiation.
She captured only about half of the Jewish vote, a smaller share than most Democrats running statewide have needed to win.
Asked if her critics had treated her fairly, New York’s junior senator said, “In the end people were fair. I had to get out and meet people face to face, answer questions and explain my [positions].”
Clinton said she — as well as her husband Bill’s administration — had taken their cues from the Israeli government in pressing the ill-fated Oslo peace agreement with the Palestinians. “There was always a connection of views with whichever Israeli government was in power, and their efforts to protect Israel’s future,” she said. “Everyone who knows me and has worked with me over the years knows that and believes it.”
Since taking office, Clinton has championed the cause of winning inclusion for Israel’s Magen David Adom in the International Red Cross; has spoken out about missing Israeli soldiers, and persistently criticized Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat. Just last week she told reporters that “we are approaching the post-Arafat era.”
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said Clinton had left no doubt about her position on the Israel-Palestinian dispute. “She certainly has made speeches of sympathy for Israel, and shown concern for Arafat’s refusal to fight terror,” said Klein, although he said Clinton should have taken a stronger role in seeking U.S. rewards for Palestinian terror suspects, or seeking the closure of Palestinian offices here. “She has not translated those speeches into legislative initiatives.”
Clinton’s brief trip to Israel, planned for Feb. 23 and 24, is sponsored by New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council, which regularly escorts members of Congress to the Jewish state. “Senator Clinton’s trip will reinforce the strong bond between our city, state and nation with the state of Israel,” said JCRC’s executive vice president, Michael Miller.
Former President Clinton, who visited Israel just last month, is not scheduled to accompany the senator.
It is Clinton’s first trip abroad as a senator, and her seventh trip to Israel. She last visited in November 2000, just days after her victory, for the funeral of Leah Rabin, wife of the slain Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Clinton said she hoped to visit the Rabins’ grave in Jerusalem, with their daughter, Dalia Rabin-Pelessoff, the deputy defense minister.
Also on the itinerary is an address to a session of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem and a Magen David Adom event. “It’s one of those trips where you try to fit five days worth of events into 36 hours,” laughed Clinton.
Meetings are planned with local elected officials as well as victims of terror.
But no Palestinians. “At this point it’s important to concentrate on my support for Israel at this perilous moment,” Clinton said. “I want to get a firsthand briefing from people on the ground about what’s going on. I’ve had meetings with everyone who has come through New York or Washington, including the defense minister [Binyamin Ben-Eliezer] and [Foreign Minister] Shimon Peres. But I don’t think anything can substitute for firsthand experience.”
Asked to reflect on her first year in office, Clinton said the events of Sept. 11 had drastically changed the nature of the job. “It has defined my work and my sense of honor and obligation,” she said. “It has consumed most of my time and energy and will for quite some time to come.”
But Clinton added that she had not seen any diminution of support for Israel among constituents or fellow members of Congress because of the attacks on America. Rather, she said, the events “generated a great reservoir of understanding and empathy toward Israel among many Americans that never existed before … It’s very hard to view the current situation through any perspective other than a profound and deep feeling that Yasir Arafat has refused to control the violence.”
Clinton would be the latest local politician to show support for the Jewish state amid a wave of terrorist attacks that have killed more than 200 Israelis. Her fellow senator, Charles Schumer, visited last fall. Gov. George Pataki, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his successor Michael Bloomberg, made a whirlwind trip in December. Comptroller H. Carl McCall, a Democratic candidate for governor, is expected to visit early next month.
Also in March, Vice President Dick Cheney is scheduled to become the highest-ranking government official to visit Israel since President George W. Bush took office.
When Clinton visited Israel in late 1999, at the dawn of her campaign, she caused a furor by listening politely as Arafat’s wife, Suha, accused Jews of poisoning Arab women and children. She then kissed Suha and waited 12 hours to denounce the comments, insisting the translation was unclear.
Clinton said she was unconcerned that the Israeli and New York press, with that incident in mind, might scrutinize her every move in Israel, looking for another debacle.
“I really don’t feel that way,” she said. “I have been a strong supporter of Israel for more than two decades, and I’ve always done what I believe is in the best interests of Israel’s long-term security.”