Jerusalem: On a dusty, rock-strewn hilltop where the East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhood of Gilo faces the Arab towns of Beit Jala and Bethlehem, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton strolled with Israeli Col. Dani Tirza Sunday morning to a point that overlooks the Middle East’s most controversial chunk of concrete.
Over the sound of camera shutters clicking and photographers jostling for vantage points, Tirza explained how this section of Israel’s security barrier rose only after residents of Gilo came under daily sniper attack in the fall of 2000, and Palestinian police were unable or unwilling to stop it.
"If someone woke up at night to get something from the refrigerator and the light went on, there was shooting," said Tirza, architect of the ongoing barrier construction.
Clinton listened intently, asking an occasional question, then declared for the media that "the primary responsibility of any government is to protect its citizens, and after trying many things it became necessary to pursue the security fence."
As for the Palestinians, she said, "They have to try to prevent terrorism and change the attitude about terrorism. It has to start in the Palestinian Authority, and it has to go out through the entire society."
It was the first of nearly a dozen photo opportunities for Clinton in the ensuing 48 hours, seemingly tailor-made for a senator facing re-election and mulling a possible White House bid to quash any lingering suspicion by Israel supporters because of statements she made as first lady in the 1990s.
Joined by daughter Chelsea and her former president husband, Clinton touched off her tour with a stroll through the Old City on Saturday shortly after arriving in Israel.
Remarkable timing made the visit packed with opportunities.
The Israel trip (Clinton’s eighth overall and her third since being elected to the Senate) allowed her and President Bill Clinton to participate in the Saban Forum, a global security conference organized by Israeli-American entertainment mogul and major Democratic contributor Chaim Saban, and in three events commemorating the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin.
It was also a time for New York’s junior senator to publicize her support of Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency medical service, at a time when the agency is likely to gain long sought-after recognition from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Clinton played a role in negotiations over what symbol the Israeli agency would use in international operations.
Perhaps most significant, the trip comes at a time when local media are shifting their political coverage from the New York City mayoral election to next year’s statewide races, which will include Clinton’s re-election bid.
The Israel visit was covered heavily by the Israeli media, and Clinton’s staff shuttled a group of reporters from New York-based publications to each event.
Clinton told the reporters traveling with her that her tight schedule did not allow for meetings with Palestinian leaders. But many journalists speculated that she was leery of another debacle like the one preceding her last Senate run, when she kissed the wife of Yasir Arafat after the Palestinian first lady made anti-Israel comments. Clinton waited a day to condemn Suha Arafat’s remarks.
Since taking office Clinton has made two visits to Israel, most recently in February 2002, in which she did not meet with Palestinians.
But she did end up meeting with a prominent Arab leader, King Hussein of Jordan, when the former American first family made a last-minute trip to Amman to tour the sites of al-Qaeda-linked bomb blasts and visit victims.
On Sunday, Clinton rushed through a round of meetings with top Israeli government leaders. In a session with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom at his offices, she discussed whether Palestinians were doing enough to crack down on terrorism, as well as sanctions on Iran in the wake of recent inflammatory comments about Israel by its president, an aide to the senator told reporters.
As the government of Ariel Sharon appears increasingly imperiled, Clinton was careful to play both sides of Israel’s political fence, hailing the Likud prime minister on several occasions as "courageous" for withdrawing from Gaza, while also praising the new opposition leader, Amir Peretz.
In a meeting at the King David Hotel, Clinton embraced Peretz’s recent description of himself as the Tony Blair of Israel for taking the Labor Party in new directions, as the British prime minister has done.
"That’s the same thing my husband tried to do and what I tried to do as new Democrats, bring ideas together that might not otherwise be looked at the same way," she told Peretz as reporters looked on, grinning.
On Monday, the senator traveled to Jerusalem’s central fire station, where she announced funding for a U.S.-Israel disaster coalition for Hurricane Katrina victims (see page 3).
At the headquarters of Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency medical service, she watched a demonstration by paramedics of a new robotic mannequin used for resuscitation and intubation training. She also met with the family of an MDA medic, Yochai Porat, who was killed in a terror attack, and was presented with an emergency responder vest and helmet by American Friends of Magen David Adom.
Throughout the trip, Clinton could not escape speculation that she was preparing for a presidential run. Following the briefing on the security fence, an Israeli reporter asked how the visit will affect her "trip to the White House." She sidestepped the question by joking, "I’ve already been there."
Several others made Oval Office references, and Clinton later told a Daily News reporter that she was not thinking about her political future beyond her re-election campaign.
"I have no idea whatís going to happen tomorrow, let alone next year or the year after," she said. "I just don’t think like that."
But Israelis clearly have come to view her as a president in waiting.
She was nearly surrounded by a mob of cheering worshipers and Israeli photographers during a Sunday visit to the Western Wall, where earlier this year her successor as first lady, Laura Bush, was heckled by both Jews and Muslims.
As Clinton placed a note in the ancient temple remnant, Moshe Haike waited by the motorcade hoping to present her with some pastries from the bar mitzvah of his nephew.
"In Israel, everybody loves Bill Clinton because he loves Israel, and Hillary is the woman behind Bill Clinton," he said. "One day she will be president, too."
With no political agenda of his own to pursue, the former president, who has been talking up his wife’s presidential qualifications, had a much lighter public schedule and seemed to garner less media attention.
During the visit to Amman, Bill Clinton referred a reporter’s question to his wife by saying "my senator serves on the Armed Services Committee, so let her answer."
But the former president did have a few opportunities to outshine his potential successor. He was the keynote speaker at the Saban Forum; his wife took part in an off-the-record panel discussion. And he was the only Clinton to speak at a rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night and an official ceremony at Mount Herzl ceremony Monday commemorating the death of Rabin.
Still, at the Saban forum, Bill Clinton referred to himself as "a caseworker for the junior senator." And after mourning Rabin as "a universal soldier in the conflict that continues to bedevil humankind," he later noted that his wife had once been tough enough to force Rabin to stand outside on a White House balcony to smoke a cigarette.