Behind the headlines, a reporter’s observations


WASHINGTON, July 20 (JTA) — Behind the headlines from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s visit to the United States, some observations:

Israel commandeers White House: White House officials went out of their way to accommodate Barak, who wanted Israeli reporters to receive a briefing before their deadlines after his first meeting with President Clinton on July 15. So in what one White House official said was a first, Clinton let a foreign leader use the Roosevelt Room for his own news conference. Since the session was held in the White House, U.S. officials required the Israelis to allow an American reporter in the room to give what is known as a “pool report” to the White House press corps. As the only White House correspondent known to be fluent in Hebrew, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, formerly of the Jerusalem Post and a former correspondent for Jewish newspapers, attended the session and later gave an impromptu news conference of his own to reporters who gathered around him. A senior American official listened in and moments later, in his own briefing from the podium, quipped, “I think I probably have less to say than Wolf did.” One of the reporters responded, “We’re leading with Wolf anyhow.”

Clinton’s ‘Plaything’ Clinton set off a storm of protest among Israeli commentators when he told Democratic donors on the eve of Barak’s visit that he was as happy as “a kid with a new toy” as he awaited the premier’s visit. Israeli media reported what they termed a “patronizing” remark and at the first news conference of Barak’s visit, an Israeli journalist asked Clinton, “What kind of game do you want to play with Mr. Barak?” After offering an answer that clearly indicated the president did not understand the question, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer stepped in to explain the flap to Clinton who explained to the media, “If I were taking a trip to Hawaii, I might say, ‘I am excited as a kid with a new toy.’ It doesn’t mean I think Hawaii is a plaything.” Clinton thanked Blitzer for helping “me make peace with the press and the people of Israel.” Later in the news conference when answering a question on whether he would meet with Syrian President Hafez Assad, Barak said, “It takes two to tango” and turning to Clinton said, “Maybe the dancing instructor is ready.” Clinton jumped in to make sure that the media understood that Barak’s comment was not a “patronizing remark toward President Assad as the prime minister’s dancing partner.”

Third leader to Camp David Barak became only the third foreign leader that Clinton has taken to Camp David during his presidency, joining the prime ministers of Britain and Brazil in the exclusive club. The two night birds met until 1:45 a.m. after viewing President Carter’s handwritten notes penned to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during negotiations on the Camp David accords, which formed the basis for the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

Char, couscous, lines and trolleys The White House opened its doors for a dinner for Barak to nearly 500 guests, the largest dinner hosted during President Clinton’s presidency. The two -and-one-half-hour receiving line was second only to those held during the annual holiday parties, exhausted White House social staff said. After trolley cars ferried guests from the White House to an ornate, carpeted, air-conditioned tent on the South Lawn lit by crystal chandeliers, they dined on gazpacho and seared arctic char with saffron basil couscous. Guests were offered kosher or vegetarian meals when they RSVP’d for the event. In addition to more than 30 members of Congress, dozens of Jewish leaders and the Democratic Party’s biggest Jewish donors, Clinton hosted his and Barak’s top political consultant, James Carville, and his wife, Mary Matalin, a top GOP commentator who called for Clinton’s ouster over the Monica Lewinsky affair. After Barak and Clinton gave a rousing welcome to Carville, who is credited as a key in getting both elected, Clinton spun Matalin around to strike a pose for the White House press corps.

Jewish guests throw protocol out the window White House officials had warned President Clinton’s secret service guards that many guests at the formal dinner in Barak’s honor would likely approach the president during dinner. They were not disappointed, as dozens violated the protocol of formal dinners and gathered around the president and prime minister seeking autographs and photographs.

Jewish editors frustrated The level of frustration among Jewish media editors was high as Barak arrived an hour late for a late Friday afternoon briefing at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, where he was staying. With their eye on the clock as Shabbat approached, editors were subjected to an unusually grueling security check through the bowels of the hotel. When the prime minister finally did arrive, editors were informed that the briefing was no longer on the record.

Shoval, Salberg and Reich in elevator Israel’s ambassador to the United States found himself trapped in an elevator for 20 minutes with two former chairmen of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Seymour Reich and Melvin Salberg. The three, along with Zalman Shoval’s security guard, were en route from Barak’s meeting with the Israel Policy Forum to his session with the Conference of Presidents when the elevator got stuck between floors of the Waldorf Astoria. They arrived at the Conference of Presidents meeting just as Barak began his presentation.

JFK Jr. looms large The presumed death of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and her sister, loomed large over the last days of Barak’s visit. The White House decided to go ahead as planned with the formal dinner in Barak’s honor Sunday night, only hours after the Coast Guard informed Clinton that they had little hope anyone had survived the apparent plane crash. Barak began his toast at the dinner saying that all the people of Israel “share America’s sorrow tonight. The little boy who sustained your nation and the world in a moment of grief, is lost at the high noon of his own promise, with his wife and her sister.” Barak pledged that “in their spirit, we continue to ask what we can do for our countries and for the cause of peace.”

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