Behind the Headlines: if and when Hillary Clinton Runs, She’s Going to Need Jewish Votes
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Behind the Headlines: if and when Hillary Clinton Runs, She’s Going to Need Jewish Votes

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First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton believes that it is in the long-term interests of the Middle East for there to be a state of Palestine.

New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani had Yasser Arafat removed from a 1995 concert at Lincoln Center saying the Palestinian Authority chairman is a terrorist and murderer.

If the two face off in a race to become the next junior senator from New York – – as they likely will — the different approach to the Palestinians is certain to be an issue.

For Clinton to win, she’s going to need overwhelming support from voters in and around New York City — that’s where more than 1 million registered Jewish voters live.

Clinton wants to focus on domestic issues such as education and health care.

But already some Democrats are worried that her views on the Middle East and Palestinian statehood — which they argue are not fairly reflected by one comment that she made two years ago to a group of Arab and Israeli teen-agers – – will haunt her on the campaign trail.

Last week, Clinton said she would form an exploratory committee in July to begin to raise money for the race. The announcement falls one step short of a declaration of candidacy.

Despite the questions about her view on Palestinian statehood, Clinton is believed to enjoy widespread support in the Jewish community, especially among women.

Once Clinton begins direct fund raising next month, officials expect Jewish campaign contributions to pour in. But whether Clinton can overcome charges of “carpetbagger” and convince Jews who have supported Giuliani to cross over and vote for her has yet to be seen.

To be sure, New York has its “yellow-dog Democrats,” those who will vote for the Democrat no matter what, as well as its staunch Republicans. Only when Clinton hits the campaign trail will she test the loyalties of Jewish voters who lie in the middle.

Already, Jewish voters are the talk of political consultants who are looking at mathematical ways for Clinton to beat Giuliani if, as expected, he survives a likely primary challenge from Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.).

Just as Democrats can’t win the White House without California, Clinton can’t win New York without strong Jewish support, according to a Democratic activist.

“If Giuliani gets 40 percent of the Jewish vote, he wins,” said this activist, who has a pessimistic view of Clinton’s chances based on the mayor’s track record of more than 60 percent support among Jewish voters in his two election victories.

A poll of 748 voters three weeks ago by Zogby International, a New York-based polling firm, showed Giuliani beating Clinton among Jewish voters 50 percent to 36 percent. Among all voters, Giuliani was ahead of Clinton 49 percent to 44 percent, the poll said.

Perhaps with this in mind, some of Clinton’s first public events in the next few weeks will target the Jewish community.

A fortuitous coincidence has Clinton traveling to Israel only days before she is set to officially open the exploratory phase of her campaign.

According to a preliminary schedule, Clinton is slated to arrive in Israel on June 24 during a long-planned mission visit to the region. Clinton is also expected to visit the Palestinian self-rule areas, although no details have been released.

While the visit will give the first lady a high profile, she is also planning to step up her Jewish speaking engagements when she returns.

On July 27, Clinton is scheduled to speak to Hadassah’s annual convention in Washington and then attend a National Jewish Democratic Council award celebration for Steve and Barbara Grossman. Steve Grossman is the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Most likely, she will reiterate to Jewish audiences what she said in April in a speech to the UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York.

Referring to the question of Palestinian statehood, she cited the U.S. administration’s position, saying, “We will stand behind any decision made between the parties and we will oppose any unilateral step that prejudges the outcome of negotiations.”

But while the first lady “can spin Palestinian statehood away,” the Clinton administration’s Jerusalem policy “is going to dog her like crazy,” a Democratic activist said, on the condition his name not be used.

Just this week, the Clinton administration notified members of Congress and Jewish officials that the president would formally waive the provisions of a 1995 law that requires the United States to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

According to participants at a closed-door briefing at last month’s policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a top official with the lobbying group cast doubt on Clinton’s support for Israel.

The pro-Israel community can be confident that there will be supporters in New Jersey and Florida, the official said, referring to the open seats where Sens. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, and Connie Mack, a Republican, are retiring.

“I wish I could say the same about New York,” the official said, in an apparent jab at Clinton.

While no one expects the pro-Israel community to launch a campaign against Clinton, their opposition is a source of concern and irritation for some supporters who say her genuine support for Israel will shine through.

Both the president and Hillary Clinton believe in Yitzhak Rabin’s analysis that the peace process is integral to Israel’s security, according to Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“If she’s elected to the Senate, it’s hard for me to imagine a senator more deeply committed to Israel and the special U.S.-Israel relationship and more able to convey that commitment to those feelings to large numbers of Americans,” he said.

Still, reservations about her views linger. Several single-issue pro-Israel political action committees do not plan on supporting Clinton unless she renounces her support for Palestinian statehood. In contrast, they said they plan to contribute to Giuliani’s campaign.

For its part, the Joint Action Committee, which focuses on Israel, abortion rights and church-state separation, won’t weigh in until they see who all the players are, but many individuals in the predominantly women’s PAC are supporting Clinton, according to Betsy Sheerr, national president of the group.

Polls show that the Jewish community is more committed to abortion rights and women’s rights than any other, Saperstein said.

“The Jewish community will see in Hillary Clinton a true champion,” he said.

But critics contend that the first lady’s record on domestic issues of concern to the Jewish community is, as one activist put it, “very mixed.” This activist cited specifically her role in encouraging the president to sign the 1996 welfare reform law, which eliminated federal entitlement to welfare benefits.

In the area of education, which is already emerging as a focus in New York, Clinton has a long track record.

Giuliani has staked out a position as an advocate of school vouchers, which Clinton adamantly opposes.

Clinton can draw on a long history that includes bringing the Israeli program known as HIPPY — the Home Instruction Program for Pre-school Youngsters — to Arkansas.

Clinton sat on the HIPPY board of directors from 1991 until her husband took office in January 1993.

The president of the National Council of Jewish Women, Nan Rich, who was instrumental in bringing HIPPY to this country, believes Clinton “would make a fabulous senator.”

“She deserves the opportunity. She’s been there for others. Now it’s her turn,” Rich said.

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