NEW YORK, Nov. 14 (JTA) — First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was detoured into a political minefield during her trip to the Palestinian self-rule areas.
Clinton, considering a run for a New York seat in the U.S. Senate, had tried to keep the focus on youth and social issues. But Suha Arafat, the wife of the Palestinian Authority president, thrust Clinton into controversy when she accused Israel of poisoning the Palestinian population.
“Our people have been submitted to the daily and intensive use of poisonous gas by the Israeli forces which has led to an increase in cancer cases among women and children,” Arafat said last week.
She also claimed that Israel had contaminated 80 percent of Palestinian water sources with “chemical materials.”
Critics, including Jewish political leaders in New York, were soon lashing out at Clinton for sitting stony-faced during Arafat’s accusations.
She was also criticized for kissing Arafat at the end of the Nov. 11 event in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where she presented a U.S. grant of some $4 million for the creation of prenatal care centers.
One day later, during a visit to Jordan, Clinton issued her criticism of Arafat’s remarks, saying inflammatory remarks could damage the peace process.
“Everyone who supports this effort toward resolving the outstanding issues among the parties should refrain from inflammatory rhetoric and from baseless accusations,” Clinton said last Friday.
She also suggested that she did not respond immediately to Arafat’s comments because they were not as harsh in the English translation she had heard.
The incident in Ramallah provided Clinton’s likely opponent in the Senate race, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, with an opportunity to score points with the city’s Jewish voters.
According to a recent poll, Clinton and Giuliani are in a dead heat for the New York Senate seat.
Giuliani said last Friday that if he had been invited to the West Bank event, “I don’t think I would have been there.”
And if he had gone, Giuliani added, he would certainly have objected to Arafat’s comments.
“I certainly wouldn’t have embraced the person that said it — hugged them and kissed them,” the mayor said.
Other Clinton critics put the focus on her lack of an immediate response to Arafat’s accusations.
“I hope that Hillary gets out of the race,” said New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Jewish political leader in Brooklyn. “To listen to this kind of horrible, anti-Semitic rhetoric and not say anything is immoral. It’s cowardice. And it makes it very difficult for the Jewish community to support her.”
The Zionist Organization of America “condemned” Clinton for saying “nothing to dispute Mrs. Arafat’s blood libel against Israel.”
Arafat was also targeted for criticism both in Israel and the United States.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak demanded that the Palestinian Authority prevent incitement and condemn Arafat’s remarks.
The White House also weighed in.
“I think the remarks that were made yesterday were inconsistent with the spirit of the agreement the leaders made to provide for a constructive and positive atmosphere to move forward in this peace process,” presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart said last Friday.
Palestinian officials, meanwhile, made attempts at damage control, saying Arafat had not intended to embarrass the first lady and mixed up her words.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed regret for the remarks, telling Reuters that Arafat had intended to say “tear gas” instead of “poison gas.”
The first lady’s trip to Israel went more smoothly for her. Clinton visited the Western Wall, and to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where she laid a wreath.
Her other stops during her two-day visit to Israel included a counseling center for teens in Kfar Saba, the Sha’are Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem and the Rabin medical center in Tel Aviv.
Before departing last Friday for Jordan, the next stop on her Middle East tour, Clinton gave a lecture at the Rabin peace center in Tel Aviv.