WASHINGTON (Dec. 22)
Facing the losing end of a critical budget battle, the Jewish community’s heavy hitters turned to Vice President Al Gore for help.
But urgent phone calls late last week went unreturned. Like much of Washington, Gore was busy dealing with the impeachment of his boss.
The episode crystallized the fears of many Jewish activists — that Clinton’s plight will distract government leaders from dealing with everything but big- ticket items.
To be sure, Clinton has demonstrated his ability to compartmentalize the impeachment issue and carry on with his presidential duties. Look no further than last week’s action in Iraq, his supporters say.
But many Jewish activists fear that important but less weighty issues will get short shrift in the weeks and months to come.
While Clinton has always faced criticism for his lack of attention to percolating issues, now things are worse, these activists say.
“There’s nothing coming down from the White House anymore,” one Jewish official said, on the condition that his name not be used. “The bureaucrats will continue to grind away, but there are no initiatives on anything but the top- tier issues.”
The Jewish community had high hopes for the Clinton presidency. It supported him with nearly 80 percent of the vote in 1992 and 1996.
And if Jewish Democratic money is any indication, there is no sign that this support is waning. Donors are giving record contributions to the party and to help fund Clinton’s defense.
As conventional wisdom again shifts in Clinton’s favor, it seems that no one wants to risk alienating the self-proclaimed “comeback kid.”
In fact, what now seem like lost opportunities could emerge as potential policy bonanzas if Clinton survives impeachment and works to rehabilitate his image through a series of expected aggressive policy pushes.
The White House has already begun to consider a national campaign-style presidential road trip following Clinton’s scheduled Jan. 19 State of the Union address.
The political and policy situation depends on how the Senate handles the two articles of impeachment delivered last weekend by House leaders. Clinton’s agenda, Democratic officials say, is as fluid as ever.
The situation has led many to lament the president’s second term for what it could have been.
“I keep hearing, `Just think of what could have been,’” another Jewish activist said, on the condition of anonymity.
But that could shift on a dime if the impeachment issue comes to a quick close.
With the Senate two weeks from voting on whether to open an impeachment trial, here’s a look at how the impeachment could affect some issues of concern to the Jewish community:
Russian-Iranian missile trade
One of the greatest casualties of Clinton’s troubles, some Jewish activists say, is the president’s inattention to the steady flow of missile technology and parts to Iran from the former Soviet states.
With intelligence reports showing Iran a couple of years away from deploying a medium-range missile capable of striking Israel with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads, the matter is viewed as a grave threat by Jerusalem and pro-Israel activists in Washington.
Although some government officials, including Gore’s chief national security adviser, have expressed serious concern about the problem, most activists agree that any serious attempt to push Russia to curb the trade will have to come from the top.
So far, the issue has not risen to Clinton’s top tier.
Many of the same activists privately say they feel slighted because the White House convinced them to support a presidential veto of congressional sanctions against Russia in exchange for greater presidential attention to the issue.
But the White House argues that the issue is terribly complex, especially in light of the weak Russian government and the resurgence of the Communist Party.
Middle East peace process
The entire Monica Lewinsky scandal broke while Clinton was meeting last January with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The president is known to consider the Israeli-Palestinian accords one of his crowning achievements and has made the issue a priority throughout his administration.
As he battled impeachment, Clinton has put a greater emphasis on the peace process, including a trip to Israel earlier this month, his fourth as president.
With Clinton looking for ways to rehabilitate his image, Jewish activists believe he will once again turn to the Middle East. While some believe Clinton will pressure Israel to share Jerusalem and accept a Palestinian state, State Department officials say the peace process runs on its own dynamic and will not be directly affected by Clinton’s troubles.
It’s likely that the parties will not have to wait a long time to find out how Clinton will deal with the issue. The president’s top aides have already begun preliminary discussions to convene another summit at the Wye Plantation this spring.
The goal would be to make what one called “significant progress” toward a final settlement in an attempt to avert a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood when the interim peace period ends May 4, 1999.
Aides discouraged speculation of another presidential visit to Israel, as well as any parallels to former President Richard Nixon, who resigned a few months after visiting Israel in an effort to distract attention from the exploding Watergate scandal.
With Jewish nursing homes, hospitals and federation agencies still receiving more than $4 billion a year in federal money, how Clinton goes about reforming Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security could have a seismic impact on the Jewish community.
But like many issues, reforming social spending depends largely on cooperation with Congress. If the impeachment debate is any indication, the raw feelings on both sides of the aisle are not likely to subside any time soon.
With Clinton out to restore his legacy, one Jewish activist involved in preliminary budget talks with the White House said, “Hang on and look out. We could be in for a bumpy ride.”
Other issues on the Jewish communal agenda could face a tough road next year. The Jewish community tends to do better in times of bipartisan compromise. With hard feelings and frayed nerves from the impeachment issue, neither party is looking toward each other with an eye toward civility.
In addition, the Republicans and Democrats will begin soon to position themselves for the 2000 presidential race. Much of the action in Congress has historically been frozen during presidential campaigns.