Did he or didn’t he? Jewish leaders weren’t ready to judge whether President Clinton had a sexual relationship with a 21-year-old Jewish White House intern.
They were, however, sure of one thing: With a Clinton administration consumed by the scandal, a radically transformed political landscape will likely have an enormous impact on both the domestic and foreign policy agendas of a range of Jewish groups.
“Last week the president was in a very strong position going into the State of the Union address,” said Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “By this week, everything he wants is going to be a hard sell.
“Power has shifted to the Republicans in Congress, and that’s going to have implications for everything we do on Capitol Hill.”
The fast-moving crisis broke in the middle of last week’s twin Mideast summits, providing a welcome respite from American pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and producing dismay in the entourage of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, whose own Washington sessions received scant attention as reporters swarmed over the lurid White House sex and high-level coverups.
Meanwhile, the lawyer for former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, now 24, gave the story an additional Jewish twist on Tuesday when he told The Jewish Week that both he and his client are big admirers of the administration’s Mideast policy and therefore do not want to see him fall, although Lewinsky’s taped conversations about an alleged relationship with the president could be the engine of that downfall.
In Israel, newspapers have warned darkly of a new wave of anti-Semitism as a result of a scandal that has been labeled “Monica-gate.” Americans, they suggest, may be convinced that a cabal of Jews is conspiring to bring down the presidency, since Lewinsky is Jewish — warnings that strangely echo charges in the Arab press.
Jewish leaders here quickly discounted those predictions. On Monday, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League called such predictions “poppycock.”
But Lewinsky’s lawyer, William Ginsburg, told The Jewish Week that his client did not want to bring down the president because “he is a friend to Israel, to the Jews, to African Americans,”
Still, Jewish leaders generally do not expect a backlash stemming from the fact that so many of the actors in the steamy melodrama are Jewish, including Lewinsky, Ginsburg and Walter Kaye, a retired New York insurance executive and a major donor to Jewish Democratic causes who reportedly introduced the former intern to the First Family.
“The entire affair is sad and disheartening,” said a top Jewish leader, “but there’s no reason to assume that the Jewish community will be blamed, except for the people who blame Jews for everything.”
A more immediate concern centers on the paralysis of the Clinton administration at a particularly sensitive time, when budget decisions for the upcoming fiscal year are being made and a host of foreign policy crises are at a high simmer.
Jewish leaders had hoped that a re-energized president would press hard for a variety of health and social welfare initiatives. But Clinton’s latest woes — if he survives at all — could make him the weakest president in recent memory as he faces off against a solidly Republican Congress.
“This is a huge concern for the Jewish domestic agenda,” said Diana Aviv, Washington director for the Council of Jewish Federations.
“We’ve worked very closely with the White House to restore some of the benefits cut in the past two years, and for programs like the administration’s child-care proposal — which, for the first time, would include some of our lower-income Jewish children.”
But the latest charges against Clinton and the tepid support from his own party mean that “he goes into budget negotiations considerably weaker,” Aviv said. “His bargaining power decreases, and that could mean a big problem for us as we try to maintain vital services and restore some of the benefits cut by Congress in the past two years.”
In foreign policy, the consequences of the Monica obsession may be evident more quickly. The swirling controversy could limit the administration’s options in dealing with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, undercut efforts to maintain international coalitions on Iran and Iraq, and wreak havoc on the Middle East peace talks.
Administration spokesmen insisted this week that foreign policy would be unaffected by the president’s problems, but few observers believed their claims.
“Administration officials will make every effort to appear hands on and in control, but we know from past experience that their minds are elsewhere,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “Iraq will be the first test; it will signal the degree to which the administration can move forward even while it is distracted.”
Before the scandal broke, the administration reportedly was nearing a decision to use military force in response to Saddam’s continued refusal to cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors seeking to uncover his cache of chemical and biological weapons.
“The administration had taken a big step toward not only military action, but a specific kind of action that addresses the primary threat — the factories for chemical and biological weapons,” said Shoshana Bryen, special projects director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
The decision, she said, “is probably the biggest single decision he will face during his presidency, with tremendous implications for Israel and the United States.”
But making it could be significantly more difficult as the White House focuses resources on the president’s defense and tries to refute charges that they are seeking a new foreign policy crisis as a distraction.
Marshalling support — here and abroad — for a major action against Iraq will require a strong, confident and fully engaged president, Jewish leaders say. Clinton may not be crippled, but he clearly doesn’t have the stature or range of options he had a week ago.
The impact of the scandal on the foundering Mideast peace talks could be just as significant, despite Netanyahu’s insistence this week that the talks would not be affected by the turmoil.
Last week’s Washington summits represented the beginning of a new and possibly last-ditch American initiative to break the yearlong impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The administration went further than ever in offering concrete American proposals for advancing the talks, and both sides agreed to the broad framework — but not the controversial details.
Those details will be the focus of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s meetings with the two leaders in the Middle East, possibly as early as next week.
“Both Arafat and Netanyahu have shown a strong tendency to ignore their commitments unless their feet are held to the fire by Washington,” said an official with a Jewish group that supports the Oslo process. “That means pressure on both sides, which the Clinton administration seemed willing to employ with considerable subtlety last week. But this week the political factors have all changed, and it may be less likely that the administration will risk angering key constituencies by playing a forceful role.”
With the administration in survival mode, the president and his top advisers may simply not have enough time to devote to a process that depends on their involvement.
“The key to this peace process is the president,” said the AJCommittee’s Harris. “Last week created a certain momentum that will enable others to step in and do the work. But over time, given the degree of difficulty of the issues, presidential attention will be required again and again. The issue is whether Clinton will be able to address those issues fully, in view of his other problems.”