Clinton, Courting Jewish Voters, Emphasizes Commitment to Israel

With one week left before the New York Democratic primary, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton linked his own plight as victim of the killer tabloids with that of the State of Israel.

“If all you know about Israel is what this administration has said in the press, Israel wouldn’t have high approval ratings either,” he told a gathering sponsored by New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council on Tuesday.

It was an approach well received by Jews who have increasingly felt the U.S.-Israeli relationship under attack by President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker.

At the JCRC gathering, as well as at earlier campaign stops at the Jewish Museum and in Brooklyn’s Boro Park neighborhood, Clinton reached out to Jewish audiences as someone who cares about Israel, about the U.S.-Israeli relationship, and about domestic tensions in the United States, which he said result from Republicans practicing “the politics of division.”

Noting Abraham Lincoln’s statement that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” Clinton said, “We’ve been gripped by a politics that says, if the house is divided we can get re-elected, so what do we care?”

Clinton charged that the Bush administration “has broken the taboo against overt anti-Semitism,” referring in particular to Baker’s reported obscenities regarding Jews.

Clinton’s approach may well resonate in a Jewish community which, following Bush’s outburst against pro-Israel lobbyists last September, began to fear that Jews and Israel could provide Republicans with the same divisive ammunition as did black convict Willie Horton in 1988.

SAYS SETTLEMENTS ARE ONE OBSTACLE

In his longer addresses before Jewish audiences, Clinton has used this issue to introduce his economic stump speech. “In tough times, the differences begin to be seen as problems, not opportunities,” he says.

Addressing the issue foremost on the minds of Israel supporters currently, Clinton noted his support for loan guarantees to help Israel absorb new immigrants.

He said that months ago he warned that “if we get into the business of linking the relocation of Soviet Jews to the peace process, we might well imperil both.

“And that’s exactly what happened,” he said. “If the U.S. is going to resolve the settlement issue by coercion, then what is left to be talked about?”

But at the same time, Clinton refused to accede to questioners who urged that he acknowledge Israeli settlements as legal, proper and not an obstacle to peace.

Instead, he stuck to his position that the settlements are an obstacle to peace, but only one of many. The Arabs have also imperiled the peace process in many ways, he said.

“Obviously, the settlements present an obstacle to peace,” he said. But so does the Arab boycott, the non-recognition of Israel, Arab militarization — there are a thousand things I can say about the Arabs that present an obstacle to peace. The main point is that these things should be left to the peace process.”

In a meeting with Jewish journalists Sunday night, he echoed a point frequently made by the Israeli government about the settlements.

“I’m not sure there would be a peace process if not for the settlements,” he said.

Clinton did not promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. That has for many years been a heated issue in New York primaries, and both the Republican and Democratic party platforms have repeatedly promised such a move.

Instead, Clinton said, “Let’s let the peace talks proceed,” saying that moving the embassy now would not help the talks.

He added that he personally viewed Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that the embassy belongs there, rather than Tel Aviv.

‘PROBABLY THE BEST WE CAN GET’

Similarly, in a statement released later Tuesday, Clinton affirmed his personal opposition to creation of an independent Palestinian state.

But he said that “the precise form which Palestinian rights should take” was among the issues on which the U.S. president should not take a position during the peace talks.

Clinton’s failure to promise what his audience wanted to hear — or to change his position after three or four speakers in a row lectured him on the settlements — seemed to be met with understanding from the JCRC audience.

“I think people accept that candor,” said William Rapfogel, executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

George Applebaum, chairman of the board of directors of Israel Bonds, agreed.

“By not saying what would have brought out the applause of the crowd, I feel him to be more of a man of character and less of a demagogue,” he said.

Toby Willig, spokeswoman for Emunah Women of America, while disappointed at his failure to endorse Israeli settlement policy, conceded that “he’s probably the best we can get.”

Clinton himself expressed a feeling shared widely in the Jewish community when he said, “Reagan was more instinctively pro-Israel than Bush was. It gave him a freedom of action that Bush doesn’t have.”

This approach allowed Clinton to focus less on how he would change the administration’s formal policy than on how he would change the tone.

“It’s self-serving for me to say, but I think the only way to improve relations is to change the president,” Clinton said.

“I can’t promise you that I will never take on any government Israel may have, but I can promise there are ways to disagree without calling into question our commitment to Israel.

“I don’t want the nation of Israel to doubt that I would be a person who believes by instinct that the preservation of Israel is of fundamental importance to the U.S. and Bill Clinton as a human being,” he said.

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