Clinton Says if Elected President, He’ll Try to Repair Ties to Israel

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton is pledging that if elected president, he will repair the damage done to the U.S.-Israeli relationship, champion civil rights and restore Americans’ faith in the political system.

In an exclusive interview last week with States News Service for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the likely Democratic presidential nominee also said that while it was “a little late for a conversion,” if President Bush decided now to provide Israel with loan guarantees for immigrant absorption, he would welcome it.

While some say issuing the guarantees now would be a cynical move by Bush to recapture badly eroded Jewish support he needs for the November election, Clinton does not see it that way.

“It is the right thing to do. I don’t care what his motives are,” he said.

Clinton said he had urged the administration since last December to approve the guarantees, which were first held up because of the Middle East peace talks and later made conditional on an Israeli freeze in the construction of settlements in the administered territories.

Despite numbers that show his campaign debt is high and his public ratings low, Clinton is confident the campaign has rallied in recent weeks with his decision to take his case directly to the people in a blitz of television talk shows.

He also seems to be benefiting from the bitter public feuding between Bush and undeclared independent candidate H. Ross Perot.

“They’re spending more time investigating each other than they are investigating the problems of the country,” he said. Meanwhile, “I released a plan to rebuild America.”

READY TO FIGHT FOR FOREIGN AID

The impassioned Arkansas governor said his biggest enemy in the battle before him is “the cynicism, skepticism and wariness of the American people that anyone who has ever held elected office can make this system work again.”

The Jewish vote is taking on increased importance as the presidential race shapes up to be a close three-way contest.

Almost no polls have measured the Jewish vote in a statistically meaningful way, but pundits say Clinton enjoys a firm 60 percent of it and that the number is likely to rise. In states rich in electoral votes, such as New York and California, that support could be critical in November.

Democratic Party Chairman Ron Brown told JTA over the weekend that the party aims to win a bigger portion of the Jewish vote than the 70 percent it received in the 1988 contest.

After a speech to the National Association of Manufacturers on his recently launched economic blueprint, Clinton’s voice had the trademark scratchiness and he seemed tired. But he was thoughtful, knowledgeable and articulate as he fielded a range of questions on the Jewish agenda.

On foreign aid, the governor vowed not to bow to a political climate that is increasingly hostile to the idea of sending U.S. dollars abroad and to fight for continued assistance to Israel. He said the recent Israeli elections would help him make the case.

“My argument would be that, as having just been demonstrated by the elections, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and is committed to maintaining democracy,” he said.

“Its people have voted to seriously continue to engage their neighbors in peace talks, and I think it is imperative for the United States to enable Israel to conduct those talks in the continued position of strength and security.”

MORE THAN AN HONEST BROKER

Clinton decried moves afoot in Congress to showcase fiscal discipline by across-the-board cuts in already reduced foreign aid, with no exceptions for aid to Israel or other earmarked categories. He said it would send the wrong message at a sensitive time.

“I wouldn’t cut aid to Israel at this point, not during these (peace) negotiations,” he said.

“Just as I have opposed the Bush administration’s continued and persistent attempts to only pressure Israel in these negotiations and to give the appearance that Israel somehow could be delivered to an Arab position, I would not favor an across-the-board cut now in foreign aid, which would affect Israel at the moment that we’re waiting to see what the consequences of the election will be.”

Asked how he would advance the peace process as president, Clinton said he would approve the loan guarantee package and then impress upon the Arabs the “historic opportunity” posed by the elections and the need for a “good-faith effort to go back to the negotiations and try to work out an agreement that all parties can live with.”

“And I would pledge my best efforts, not only to be an honest broker in the process, but to ensure that the United States, working through the United Nations, can be a firm guarantor of whatever conditions are agreed to.”

Clinton repeatedly has said that Israeli settlements in the territories are “a problem” for the peace talks, but should never have been linked to Israel’s loan request.

“We didn’t condition loan guarantees to Arab countries on ending the boycott or making other moves toward Israel to help make peace,” he pointed out.

“Second, we had a commitment of some two decades’ duration to help relocate Jewish immigrants from what was the Soviet Union, while we had a strict limit on how many of those immigrants we would accept into this country.”

OPPOSES BUSH VOUCHER PLAN

Clinton said he would support a decision by Bush to give the loan guarantees to the new Israeli government. “I have not been shy about supporting him when I thought he was right,” said Clinton. “If he does the right thing and he gets credit for it, that’s fine with me.”

He also said that “nothing would please me more than to have a post-Cold War foreign policy that was a genuine bipartisan one again.”

As for domestic issues, Clinton, widely hailed for his education reform initiatives in Arkansas, is against the kind of school choice plan unveiled last week by Bush to give $1,000 stipends so that parents can send their children to public or private schools, including parochial schools.

The plan was sharply attacked by the American Jewish Congress as “yet another assault on the wall of separation between church and state.”

“I don’t think we should have direct taxpayer subsidies to private schools,” said Clinton. Too many public schools are underfunded, and diverting money to private schools would aggravate their problems, he said.

Providing competitive choice among public schools, he said, would provide the same incentive to improve schools. But it would not deal the blow to the public schools that vouchers would inflict.

Clinton also said that subsidies to religious schools may violate the constitutional call for the separation of church and state.

On another constitutional matter, the Arkansas governor urged that not too much be made of the Supreme Court’s June 22 ruling striking down a St. Paul, Minn., hate crimes ordinance as unconstitutional.

While he said interpreting the ruling was “a tough call,” Clinton said statutes need to be crafted more narrowly, “to guarantee and protect legitimate freedom of expression and draw the line right where that freedom of expression encroaches on other people’s interests and legitimate security fears.”

He said he would support federal anti-hate crimes legislation based on increasing penalties for activities already deemed criminal if the motives are found to be racial hatred or bias.

“I think this is a time of intense racial and ethnic division in America,” he observed. “Our diversity ought to be a source of our strength instead of an instrument of our undoing.”

‘BULLY PULPIT’ AGAINST HATRED

Discussing his strategy to combat racial strife, Clinton said that, as president, he would first appoint a staff and Cabinet “that look like America.”

Second, he said he would unambiguously enforce civil rights laws, including hate crimes legislation. And third, he said he would use the “bully pulpit.”

“If you have a record that is consistent with your pronouncements, then the power of the presidency to speak is an important power,” he said.

The presidential contender said Bush has failed to exercise leadership in this arena. “He has difficulty because of the mixed messages he sends.”

Clinton insisted his effort to forge racial harmony was well served by his remarks chiding the Rainbow Coalition for giving a platform to the inflammatory rap singer Sister Souljah.

Insiders say the remarks were carefully calculated to establish distance from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a move that is expected to win Clinton support among Jewish voters who voted for Bush in 1988 but have been disaffected by his Israel policies.

Instead the remarks exploded into a prolonged controversy over Clinton’s commitment to the Rainbow Coalition agenda and confrontation with Jackson.

“I still think I said the right thing,” the candidate said. Souljah’s “is not the kind of attitude that will permit us to do what we have to do” to build harmony.

Meanwhile, he denied any rapprochement with Jackson was being orchestrated to head off a confrontation at the party convention next month.

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