The United States must not use foreign aid as leverage against Israel to thwart an arms deal with China, Hillary Rodham Clinton told The Jewish Week in a wide-ranging interview last week.
"I don’t think this should be a political football in the foreign aid debate," the first lady said in an hourlong meeting with editors and staff at the paper’s Manhattan offices. "We have to take the attitude that we need to be using quiet diplomacy and use whatever intelligence we have available to persuade Israel of our position."
In her first detailed interview on Jewish issues, and one of her first editorial board meetings, Clinton spoke to The Jewish Week two days after accepting the Democratic nomination to succeed Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who is retiring.
Among the topics discussed were the Mideast peace process, terrorism, tuition relief for parochial-school parents, the imprisonment of Jonathan Pollard and her view of the controversial New York activist Rev. Al Sharpton.
Clinton made her first comments on the thorny issue of advanced radar planes Israel intends to sell China as congressional efforts to cut a portion of Israel’s aid because of the controversial arms sale continued to alarm pro-Israel lobbyists (see Capital column).
Clinton said the matter should be handled "behind closed doors with the Israeli government. I don’t think it’s something that should be turned into a cause celebre on the floor of Congress, especially at this delicate stage of the peace process."
By contrast, Clinton supported the use of U.S. aid to nongovernmental organizations in the Palestinian-controlled territories as leverage to persuade the Palestinian Authority to excise anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric from government speeches and school textbooks.
"We have so few ways in the world today of exercising any kind of influence or leverage on nations," said Clinton, when asked to expound on a view she articulated in a December meeting with the Orthodox Union. "One of our great challenges … is to make it clear that the United States stands for mutual respect among people, tolerance among people, and we support those who share those views."
In her public and private meetings with Jewish leaders, Clinton said she was hearing about a range of issues from health care to education and housing. In the interview, she appeared to show a command of those issues.
Clinton, who early in her campaign had taken heat on her views on a Palestinian state and her failure to address controversial anti-Israel statements by the wife of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, said she had developed a keen understanding of concerns about Israel and Jewish issues.
"I realize that one of the obligations of a United States senator from New York is to be a strong, constant and vital voice on behalf of Jewish interests and Israel, and that it is such a unique additional role that one assumes," she said, suggesting that Moynihan would be her role model in that pursuit.
She expressed familiarity of the pain of the Flatow family of West Orange, N.J., whose daughter was killed in a terrorist attack, and the Busch family of Long Island, whose son was killed in a police shooting in Brooklyn. She said she would support a bill by New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg that would allow Americans to collect civil judgments against foreign countries who sponsor terrorism, which would help the Flatows obtain a $247.5 million judgment against Iran. That judgment has been blocked by the president.
"I have made my views known to the administration and I’m hoping there will be some resolution of that case," she said.
Clinton said the August shooting of Busch raised questions about "the way we train and equip and supervise our police officers" and supported the call by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat who represents Brooklyn and Manhattan, for federal action in the case.
Clinton’s strict interpretation of the constitutional wall separating church and state came up in discussions on the subjects of parochial tuition vouchers and the so-called charitable choice proposal, both of which she opposes.
On charitable choice, which would allow the distribution of social service dollars through faith-based organizations, Clinton said she found the idea "a dangerous proposition."
"Creating some kind of government agency that would make determinations between different groups [is] very troubling, and I don’t think it’s necessary," she said.
Clinton presented a mixed view on the merits of religious school education. At one point, she said it was "a choice that I support." At another, she cited the peace process in Northern Ireland and said Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren there had "never crossed the paths of anyone different than themselves. [Bringing children together] is a social good that we should be promoting."
The Senate hopeful, who is counting on heavy support from teachers’ unions (the most ardent foes of voucher programs) dismissed legislation passed in both houses of Congress to allow tax-free investment accounts for any education expenses as a "back-door way to vouchers." Her position on vouchers puts her at odds with Moynihan, a strong proponent of vouchers.Clinton said public schools need to be strengthened "so that we don’t balkanize even further the diverse communities that exist in our country." She supports investment accounts allowing a deduction of up to $10,000 per year for college education only.
Clinton was circumspect on the controversial subject of Pollard, the former naval intelligence officer imprisoned for espionage on behalf of Israel.
Asked if she would support the release of a classified memo by former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger considered to have led to Pollard’s life sentence, Clinton said only that she was "troubled by the apparent lack of transparency and the alleged disproportionality of the treatment."
She said she was "open to learning more and thinking harder about what I think is the right thing to do." But she also said she was "cognizant of the very strong feelings [against Pollard’s release] held by people whom I deeply respect, like [Connecticut] Sen. [Joseph] Lieberman."
Asked to explain her rationale for meeting with Sharpton, whom many Jews hold responsible for black-Jewish tensions, while later denouncing conservative presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and left-wing radical Lenora Fulani, Clinton said she believed that Sharpton had moved away from his past rhetoric.
"I heartily disagree with what he said with respect to Crown Heights, with respect to Tawana Brawley," she said. "But I think that [former] Mayor Koch has a very strong point, that there does seem to have been some effort and movement on his part, and I’m going to be watching and carefully assessing that."
Clinton downplayed the significance of her visit to Sharpton’s National Action Network headquarters in Harlem on Martin Luther King Day.
"I went to his, whatever, headquarters, his organizations headquarters, for the Martin Luther King celebration, as did [Sen.] Chuck Schumer, as did [Attorney General] Eliot Spitzer, as did a lot of other people." She pointed out that she had promptly denounced a controversial statement and vowed that in the future "I will stand up and say what I believe at any point in the process."
On the subject of Arab-American and Muslim groups that were invited by the Clintons to the White House, some of which are hostile to Israel, the first lady declined to comment on what standards should be applied to such organizations.
"It is especially important for all of us to be building bridges and creating relations with Muslim Americans, which is the fastest-growing group of Americans at the moment," she said. "We have invited many groups and many individuals from all walks of life … There are so many people we have differences of opinion about on everything from Israel on one hand and the Middle East peace process to, you know, public education and the like. I think it’s important that we keep trying to build those bridges."
Asked to assess her apparent inability to gain ground among women voters, Clinton said it was "totally fair" for those voters to be cautious about her campaign.
"I think women are very thoughtful voters, so I’ve been going around having lots of small informal meetings," she said.
"Most people have no idea what I’ve done for the last 30 years. A lot of people think I just sort of arose full-blown from, you know, the head of Bill Clinton or something."
The interview took place one day before Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced his decision to withdraw from the Senate race. Clinton professed to be unconcerned about developments in her opposition camp.
"I have no control over what happens on the other side," she said. "All I can do is try to break through the stereotypes and misperceptions about me."