Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s whirlwind Israel visit, which scored points with citizens of the besieged Jewish state and New York constituents, has drawn criticism from an unlikely source.
Americans for Peace Now, a group that closely supported the Oslo peace process championed by her husband, President Bill Clinton, rapped the senator and former first lady for not meeting with Palestinians.
APN’s assistant executive director and spokesman, Lewis Roth, said Monday that Clinton, who met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, “could have availed herself of the opportunity to meet with Palestinian leaders of the region and deliver the message about how important it is to restore security cooperation in the region and make every effort to get back to negotiations.”
Roth said Clinton’s one-sided
visit “indicated how far the Palestinian Authority has fallen in the eyes of many people on Capitol Hill, and how far they need to go to rebuild their status.” But he noted that a congressional delegation had met with Yasir Arafat last summer.
“There are still two sides of the conflict, and you’re not going to get to the solution by ignoring one half of the equation,” Roth said.
His view, however, is at odds with the founder and policy director of APN, Mark Rosenblum, who was in Israel for Clinton’s visit.
Rosenblum, who attended a Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations dinner and several other Jerusalem events featuring Clinton, said the senator fulfilled her mission of expressing solidarity with Israel.
“That was the message of her trip,” said Rosenblum, who flew on the same El Al flight with Clinton. “This was certainly not the occasion to visit Ramallah and Arafat. I’m not going to second-guess her.”
Roth’s comments indicate how much Clinton’s allegiances have shifted since her historic 2000 election as the first first lady to hold public office. While at the White House, the most prominent supporters of her husband’s administration were from the liberal, pro-peace camp. Today she seems cozier with those who are skeptical of peace with the Palestinians.
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a former Jewish Defense League member who was courted by Clinton during her campaign but did not endorse her, called her Israel trip “fantastic.” He said the visit came at a particularly important time for Israel because of the heightening of Palestinian violence.
“It was the only positive news that week as they murder Jews every day,” Hikind said.
Clinton’s trip was organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and UJA-Federation of New York; the JCRC regularly sponsors congressional missions to Israel. Clinton is the latest in a series of New York politicians to visit Israel. Only the Rev. Al Sharpton, a likely candidate for president, met with Arafat.
This week state Comptroller Carl McCall, a Democratic candidate for governor, was to include visits to two West Bank settlements on his Israel trip, accompanied by Hikind.
Clinton’s 36-hour trip was a far cry from a visit in 1999, when as a Senate candidate she outraged many Israelis by listening quietly as Arafat’s wife accused the Israel Defense Forces of poisoning children, then kissed her. Only 12 hours later did Clinton denounce the statements.
As was the case with the recent visits of Gov. George Pataki, mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg and several New York Police officers and personnel involved in Sept. 11 rescues, many Israelis seemed genuinely touched by Clinton’s decision to visit at a time when bombs are blowing up in downtown Jerusalem.
“It’s nice that she came at this time, to such a dangerous place. It’s a very brave thing to do,” said Oshrat, a 23-year-old part-time student who works in a clothing shop right next to the Jerusalem Sbarro, site of a suicide bombing in August that killed 15. Clinton visited the site of the pizza restaurant on Sunday.
Pointing out the cracked wall the store shares with Sbarro, the young saleswoman said, “Hillary is a strong woman in the United States, not just Bill Clinton’s wife. She’s demonstrated that she loves Israel and our people.”
Oshrat said she was gratified by Clinton’s repeated public condemnation of Arafat during the visit — condemnation that was broadcast on the hourly radio news and published in the daily newspapers.
“Her public statements during this trip, saying she is disappointed in Arafat, were good to hear. We’re disappointed, too,” Oshrat said.
Clinton elicited a similar response a couple of hours later during a public meeting with recovering terror victims at Hadassah Hospital’s Ein Kerem branch.
Among them was New Yorker Elana Sokolow, a Jerusalem yeshiva student whose parents and sister were injured in a recent suicide attack on Jaffa Road. The three have since returned to New York to recuperate.
“She has a very busy schedule, so I think the fact that she came shows how important Israel is to her,” said the vivacious 18-year-old, who suffered eye injuries. “It’s nice to know that people in the U.S. care about Israel. It reminds us that Israel isn’t just some little isolated country in the Middle East.”
Naftali Cohen, a bus driver who ferried reporters in Clinton’s entourage, said the senator’s pilgrimage “gives us strength.”
“What she said about Arafat being to blame for the violence strengthens us and our international position,” Cohen said. “Ariel Sharon is under a lot of pressure from the U.S. government and the European Union to be softer on the Palestinians. Maybe she can stop some of this pressure.”
That appeared to be the hope, at least unofficially, of the Israeli government, which along with the Jerusalem Municipality facilitated Clinton’s visit with the JCRC.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emanuel Nahshon said the ministry felt “a very special relationship with Hillary Clinton” because she and her husband had been closely aligned with the peace process.”
“Mrs. Clinton is an important member of the U.S. Senate and as such is an important ally of Israel,” said Nahshon,
He added that high-profile visits like Clinton’s generally forward Israel’s interests. “We try to convince them of our positions,” he said of visiting American dignitaries.
“Clinton’s statements are testimony to that. When they go back to the U.S., it’s obvious that they go back as stronger friends and allies,” Nahshon said. “This helps strengthen ties between Israel and the U.S.”
Wayne Firestone, director of the Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League, said he “was taken by the local response” to the visit.
“The local press covered it extensively,” he said. “Clinton’s speech [to the Presidents Conference] was distributed by the Government Press Office. All of the Israeli officials responded very enthusiastically that such an important figure had made these strong statements while in Israel.”
Which is not to say that there were no detractors.
“Why did she need to come here?” snarled Robin Ben-Zvi, a former New Jersey resident who made aliyah 18 years ago, watching the swarm of media outside the Sbarro pizzeria. “I know why — to advance her career. She knows she’s in trouble with American Jews, and she thinks this will counter it.”
Adam Dickter is a staff writer.
Michele Chabin is an Israel correspondent.