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News Analysis: Divine Act or Coincidence? Israelis Ponder Sex Scandal

January 27, 1998
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If President Clinton’s problems were in the hands of Israeli public opinion, he wouldn’t have a problem at all.

The outpouring of press coverage about Clinton’s alleged affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky has reached the news-addicted shores of Israel, where it has provoked widespread sympathy for the beleaguered American president.

Scientific polls are not yet available, but random sampling carried out by news media has found a widespread feeling here that Clinton is being persecuted by his political foes, hounded by the press and harassed by a string of vindictive former lovers — all for doing what many men do, and what many more dream of doing.

After all, say many of those asked, there was no rape involved, no seduction, no sexual harassment.

And even if what he is alleged to have done is morally reprehensible, they add, the test is how he runs the country and foreign affairs, not how he handles his sex drive.

In a reflection of sentiments here, billboards appeared across Israel this week with the message, “We Support You, Friend” — reminiscent of the phrase “Goodbye, Friend,” that Clinton used in his 1995 eulogy at the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Inevitably, political pundits are comparing Clinton’s woes with a similar problem encountered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s leadership of the Likud Party was nearly derailed soon after it began in 1993, when he chose to go live on prime-time television to tell a bemused Israeli public that he had been having an adulterous affair.

The admission of philandering apparently did him little harm, except with his wife, Sara, who was reportedly close to walking out.

During his premiership, Netanyahu has repeatedly been embarrassed by media accounts unflattering to his wife and to their relationship.

But he weathers these attacks with aplomb, indeed with a measure of pained dignity.

And, as far as an eagle-eyed press corps is aware, Netanyahu — perhaps unlike Clinton — has stopped sowing his wild oats now that he has attained the pinnacle of power.

There are persistent rumors that surface in the press here, despite repeated denials, that after his televised admission of adultery Netanyahu and his wife drew up a binding contract regulating his future behavior in their marriage.

Some link this to their insistence that she — and often their two children – – accompany him on his official visits abroad.

On the more serious policy level, the atmosphere in government circles, in the immediate aftermath of Netanyahu’s difficult visit to Washington last week, is one of discernible relief.

Instead of a period of ongoing and intense tension in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, many officials foresee a period in which the top policy-makers in Washington are preoccupied with the fight for the president’s survival.

But a counter-theory — that domestic straits make for foreign policy assertiveness and even adventurism — is also current here.

Veteran Israeli officials recall the Nixon administration’s vigorous pursuit of diplomatic openings in the period after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when President Nixon was up to his neck in the Watergate affair.

And while that policy was conducted by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the president, despite his sagging political fortunes or perhaps because of them, was intimately involved.

Nixon toured the Middle East early in 1974 in an effort to immerse himself in the statesmanship side of his job, which he excelled at and enjoyed.

Conceivably, if there is a protracted period in which a wounded president fights for survival, there could also ensue a period of energetic foreign policy initiatives, conducted with the president’s personal involvement.

The Israeli-Arab conflict is a natural arena for a president looking to be presidential.

This is not, of course, good news for those on the Israeli right who are apprehensive of American pressure on Netanyahu to provide concessions to the Palestinians.

Among them are some who openly have hailed “Monicagate” as a veritable miracle — Divine intervention along the lines of the Purim story.

“She’s a latter-day Queen Esther,” one Orthodox observer said of Lewinsky, referring to the biblical account of a beautiful young Jewess who captured the heart of Persian King Ahasuerus and was able to avert the wicked vizier Haman’s plot to destroy the Jewish people.

Indeed, the timing of the crisis — Netanyahu was alone with Clinton in the family quarters of the White House when the first editions of the Jan. 21 Washington Post hit the streets with the report — has not been lost in the Arab world.

The fact that the affair exploded in Washington during the Netanyahu visit, and just as the Clinton administration was trying to press Israel to move forward in the stalled peace process, left some Arab politicians, columnists and the average person on the street in the Arab world convinced that a Zionist conspiracy was behind the sex scandal.

“It is not a joke,” Lebanese Premier Rafik al-Hariri told his Parliament during the annual budget debate. “The Zionist lobby is twisting the arm of the president of the greatest country in the world.”

Arab analysts differed only on whether Israel’s Mossad was behind the conspiracy or whether it was the responsibility of the American Jewish lobby.

The popular Al-Akhbar daily in Egypt said American Jews were trying to preoccupy Clinton with anything but the peace process.

Similar comments were made by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, and by the press in the Persian Gulf, Syria and the Palestinian self- rule areas.

The Lebanese newspaper A-Nahar opined last week that because of the Lewinsky affair, the peace process had become “uninteresting.”

Zionist plots and immoral sex have long been a popular combination in the Arab media.

The Egyptian and Palestinian press reported extensively last year about Israeli schemes to spread the AIDS epidemic in the Arab world.

And there were rumors last year in the Gaza Strip that Israel had laced chewing gum with impotence-inducing chemicals and aphrodisiacs.

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