In a continuing war of words over Israel, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo is accusing his rival, state Comptroller H. Carl McCall, of inaction as a United Nations diplomat in the early 1980s while the world body passed anti-Israel resolutions.
“As a deputy ambassador to the UN, Carl McCall stood silently by while the U.S. repeatedly took decidedly anti-Israel positions,” said Cuomo campaign consultant Josh Isay.
The resolutions included one calling Israeli settlement activity illegal, supported by the U.S., another censuring Israel for annexing East Jerusalem and calling for the relocation of embassies there, abstained by the U.S. Another faulted Israel’s retaliation against Palestinian terrorists and called on Israel to compensate those injured in such actions. The U.S. opposed, but chose not to veto it.
“Press reports at the time indicate that others in the Carter administration expressed their displeasure with these votes,” said Isay. “Carl owes the voters an explanation.”
Isay’s attack came one day after Hank Sheinkopf, McCall’s political consultant, rapped the former U.S. housing secretary in the New York Post for meeting with Yasir Arafat in June 2000. That visit was several months before the start of the second Palestinian intifada.
Sheinkopf repeated his criticism to The Jewish Week Tuesday. “It was young Andy who sat with Yasir Arafat, then came back and said Arafat was ‘genuinely eager’ to achieve peace. How dare they criticize Carl McCall?”
Cuomo’s comment on the Arafat meeting was made during a conference call to reporters upon his return.
Asked if McCall considered resigning his post while the anti-Israel measures were being passed, Sheinkopf said, “Should Andrew have resigned after he sat with Arafat? Carl reported to [Ambassador] Donald McHenry, who reported to Cyrus Vance, the secretary of state. Carl McCall did not cast the votes, Donald McHenry did.”
The skirmish comes as McCall has faced a barrage of questions from reporters about taxpayer financing of his Israel trip last week, which included a visit to a Judean settlement.
McCall said he was checking on $67 million in pension funds invested in Israeli projects. Critics say that sum is less than 1 percent of state funds invested abroad.
Isay insists McCall’s campaign should have paid for the junket, which he sees as an attempt to boost his standing among Jewish voters. He pointed to a photo released this week by the comptroller’s office that showed him taking target practice with an automatic rifle at an Israeli army base.
“What investment was Comptroller McCall inspecting when he was firing an M-16 rifle?” he quipped. “Is target practice in his official job description? … He should immediately disclose how much the trip costs and pay back the pension fund for all expenses.”
Sheinkopf countered that McCall “toured an antiterrorist training camp at an undisclosed location, where he met and talked with Israeli soldiers who daily put their lives on the line in the international war against terrorism. Compare that to young Andy in 2000.”
The exchange indicates a bitter battle for Jewish votes in an already contentious Democratic primary, with the most likely beneficiary being Republican Gov. George Pataki.
A Siena College poll this week showed Pataki’s approval rating dropping 12 points from a mammoth 80 percent peak following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But both potential rivals seem more fixated on each other than Pataki’s record.
The governor, for his part, visited Israel in December, and although taxpayers partially funded that trip (he flew on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s private plane), Pataki faced no questions about that trip or similar forays to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Pataki has even defended the process of visiting Israeli settlements, and said he would consider doing so in the future, without controversy.
But McCall’s trip has been dogged by negative publicity concerning his visit to the West Bank, and later about the financing.
“There has been more coverage about the funding than about the actual trip,” observed Lee Miringoff, the political pollster at Marist College. “In this case it’s unclear if the trip helped him.”
But political science professor Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz said that despite the controversies that can erupt in cases like McCall’s, and Hillary Clinton’s 1999 visit marred by her Suha Arafat kiss, it is still worthwhile for candidates to put Israel on their itinerary.
“Clinton didn’t lose the election” for Senate, said Benjamin. “It is still regarded as a symbolic necessity for New York Democrats. But people have to use their heads when they go, and when they go for political reasons they should pay for it out of political funds.”
Diane Steinman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s New York region, said that while support for Israel was welcome, politicians should not regard a visit as a litmus test.
“If the motivation is that it’s a litmus test, I think that’s a mistake,” said Steinman. “The Jewish community is very diverse. There may be some for whom that is decisive and others for whom it’s not.”
To some extent the posturing over Israel is a sign that Jews are still viewed as an important voting bloc to Democrats at a time of changing demographics. After all, Israel used to be considered one of the “three I’s” on the campaign trail. But Italy and Ireland seem to have been replaced by the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico with Latinos emerging as a crucial constituency.
And Clinton’s 2000 victory, with heavy support from unions and upstate voters, already has exploded the former axiom that Democrats running statewide need two-thirds of the Jewish vote to win. She won just over 50 percent.
But it remains to be seen how Jewish voters, who have been supportive of Pataki in two elections, will view an all-out war by two Democrats with Israel as a central issue.
“It doesn’t help anybody,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “These are two people who have been supportive of Israel, and the important message is their support and friendship at this difficult time.”
Despite his attacks on McCall’s tenure at the United Nations, Isay said he did not question the comptroller’s support for Israel.
“The comptroller and the secretary agree on one thing,” he said. “We must stand strongly together in support of the State of Israel at a time when its people are under daily terrorist attack.”
A cease-fire agreement was reached in Israel last week, but it had nothing to do with Israelis and Palestinians.
In the shadow of the Western Wall, two longtime political nemeses agreed to bury the hatchet while accompanying McCall to Israel. David Luchins, a senior adviser to the comptroller, shook hands with Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a McCall ally. Both men noted the somber situation facing the Jewish state.
“I said that any differences we have should be put aside while Jews are being killed,” said Luchins, who had denounced Hikind in the media as an overrated attention-grabber.
Hikind, who has said Luchins was “not well” and “better suited for research” than advising McCall, said “it’s important for people like us to get along with each other and I’m happy the opportunity presented itself outside the Western Wall.”