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Israelis will miss Clinton

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JERUSALEM, Jan. 16 (JTA) — The only T-shirts on the streets of Tel Aviv that provoke smiles from almost everyone these days say “Clinton Lashilton” — Hebrew for “Clinton as our leader.”

The facile Hebrew rhyme — appearing above a smiling representation of the U.S. president, who is counting his final hours in the White House — elicits reactions far different from the ennui or downright disillusionment that so many Israelis feel toward the two candidates running for prime minister in the Feb. 6 election.

An opinion poll cited by the Israeli daily Ma’ariv suggested Clinton would win 28 percent of the votes if he could run next month.

While everyone knows that he can’t, there is nonetheless the widespread feeling that if the outgoing U.S. president could run, he would probably trounce incumbent Ehud Barak and challenger Ariel Sharon.

Aside from elements on the far right — who feel Clinton would blithely sacrifice vital Israeli interests if it advanced his legacy as a peacemaker — Clinton is widely seen here as the president best disposed toward the Jewish state, with the possible exception of President Truman.

Regardless of reservations about his recent peace plan, Israelis of most political stripes detect in Clinton a genuine and deep-held regard for Jews individually and for the Jewish people as a whole.

Perhaps, as a seasoned observer once said of former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson — another leader with a magic political touch who rose from humble origins — “He admires self-made people like himself, and likes to have them around him.”

Indeed, the proliferation of Jews in the Clinton administration — from the Cabinet through the Middle East peace team — has been so pronounced as to be almost an embarrassment for some Israelis.

At any rate, many Israelis, like the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, took to Clinton early on.

His behavior after the Rabin assassination, his heartfelt grief so simply expressed, elevated him in the national perception to “one of us.”

When he said “Shalom, chaver” at Rabin’s funeral, it may have been merely an aide’s flash of speechwriting genius. Nonetheless, there was no mistaking the sincerity of the president’s mourning.

Now, as President-elect George W. Bush prepares to enter the White House — and perhaps because of the difficult period Israel is now going through — some Israelis worry that the change in American leadership will be traumatic for Israel.

As columnist Yoel Marcus wrote in the daily Ha’aretz this week, “In four more days, we will bid farewell to the friendliest, most involved, most caring, most well-meaning U.S. president Israel has ever had.

“But it is very doubtful that U.S. President-elect George W. Bush will continue where President Clinton left off. Bush doesn’t have what Clinton had — the ‘warm feeling’ for Israel. His approach to the Jews is less enthusiastic, and the proof is that there is not one Jew among the major appointments in his administration, with the exception of his spokesman, and the husband of the secretary of labor, who was forced to resign because she employed a woman who did not have immigration papers.

“Vice President-elect Richard Cheney and Bush’s Secretary of State Colin Powell are not Jew-haters,” Marcus wrote, “but in their approach to our region they are guided by their heads rather than their hearts.”

Marcus and other Israeli observers have also pointed out that Bush and his team have close links to the U.S. oil industry, traditionally a hotbed of financial interests in, and sympathy for, the Arab world.

Some people here also recall the unsavory public fight that erupted between Bush’s father and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over Israel’s request, in the early 1990s, for American loan guarantees to help pay for immigrant absorption.

The elder Bush and his first secretary of state, James Baker, made the granting of these guarantees contingent on a change in the Likud government’s settlement policy.

Some Israeli political commentators believe Bush’s actions helped tilt the 1992 election against the Likud and paved the way for Rabin’s ascent to power.

Even some Israelis who were happy about that change in government were uncomfortable about the sparks flying between Jerusalem and Washington.

As the younger Bush comes to power, other Israelis are less apprehensive.

They take a longer view of the unique American-Israeli relationship. Above all, they see it as characterized by steadiness and consistency, and they tend to discount both the fears expressed about new American administrations and the nostalgia expressed for outgoing ones.

The recent death of former U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers illustrates the cogency of this approach.

Rogers, who was secretary of state during President Nixon’s first term, articulated Washington’s early policy on the Israeli-Arab conflict just after the 1967 Six-Day War.

In what came to be known as the Rogers Plan, the United States essentially decided that Israel would have to cede the territory conquered in 1967 in return for a negotiated peace treaty.

This principle also applied to Jerusalem, hence the refusal of all subsequent U.S. administrations to recognize Israel’s annexation of eastern Jerusalem after the 1967 war.

When that policy is compared to the peace plan that Clinton recently submitted to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the similarities are arresting, the differences hard to detect.

Clinton’s proposal to divide Jerusalem along the lines of its present demographic divisions matches U.S. policy followed by both Democratic and Republican administrations over the years.

Another example also shows the futility of pigeonholing U.S. administrations even before they are seated.

Veteran observers will recall the trepidation that engulfed the Israeli political community when President Reagan first named George Schultz as his secretary of state.

As a former president of Bechtel, the giant multinational with strong interests in Saudi Arabia, Schultz was described here as irredeemably pro-Arab and anti-Israel.

When he left office, not a single Israeli public figure refrained from praising him for his fairness, straightforwardness and sagacity.

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