Clinton touts Israel credentials


NEW YORK, Feb. 4 (JTA)   In her first address to a Jewish group since announcing
her candidacy for president, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton tried to convince
doubters that she’ll stand by Israel in time of peril.

Speaking Feb. 1
at a dinner for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Northeast region,
the New York Democrat – the early front-runner for her party’s presidential
nomination – sought to answer several of the questions Jewish voters will be
asking of presidential candidates over the next year and a half.

Clinton, 59, was tough on Hamas and Hezbollah, said Iran must not be allowed to
become a nuclear power and declared her unequivocal support for the Jewish

“I have been, I am now and I always will be proud to stand with
all of you as a strong supporter of Israel,” the former first lady said. “We
believe that Israelis have the right to live in their country without the
constant threat of terrorism, war and rocket fire.”

Though it’s too
early to predict who will take the Jewish vote in the 2008 vote, candidates are
expected to woo Jewish voters because of their traditionally strong support
for Democrats and their deep pockets as political contributors.

Observers say Clinton has made strides as a vocal supporter of Israel during her
six years as a New York senator, even though she still may be a tough sell to
those who have not forgiven her embrace and kiss with Suha Arafat at a
November 1999 event in Gaza – just after Arafat had accused Israel of poisoning
Palestinian babies.

Clinton claimed Arafat’s comments hadn’t been
translated correctly and she became aware of the allegations only after the

Still, her supporters say that those who bring up that incident
now – after Clinton has consistently supported legislation in support of
Israel – are grasping at straws.

Speaking before a crowd of 1,700 at
the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City, Clinton described
the “unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States based on shared
interests and rooted in strength.”

Israel, she said, is a beacon of
democracy in a tyrannical neighborhood, and the threats it faces
from Hezbollah and Iran are threats not just to Israel but to the entire
Middle East, the United States and the rest of the world.

berated Iran and the Holocaust denial conference in December hosted by Iranian
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, though she didn’t mention
Ahmadinejad’s name.

The conference “was beyond the pale of
international discourse and acceptable behavior,” Clinton said, calling it an
insult to survivors and Allied solders who bore witness to Nazi atrocities. “To
deny the Holocaust places Iran’s leadership in the company of the most
despicable bigots and historical revisionists.”

She said the conference
only added urgency to the need to deal with Iran.

“U.S. policy must be
clear and unequivocal: We cannot, we should not, we must not permit Iran to
build or acquire nuclear weapons,” Clinton said. “As I have said for a long
time, no option should be taken off the table” in dealing with this

But the United States should first try to engage Iran in
dialogue, she said.

“I’m not sure anything positive would come out of
it,” Clinton said, but at least such a dialogue would give the United States
more information about its adversary, possibly provide some leverage and – if
military force ultimately is necessary – show the world that other options
had been exhausted first.

In a speech in which she sentimentally
recalled several trips to Israel, Clinton also said Hamas and Hezbollah must
give up terrorism and accept Israel as a reality. She called on both groups to
return three captured Israeli soldiers without condition.

who lobbied for the International Red Cross to accept Israel’s Magen David Adom
emergency response organization, said she had sent a letter to IRC President
Jacob Kellenberger asking the Red Cross to make sure the captured soldiers
are safe and are released. Two are being held in Lebanon and one in

Clinton also said she would do “an event” next week in the Senate
to highlight the anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli rhetoric that remains part of
the Palestinian educational curriculum.

Though AIPAC does not support
political candidates, some of the group’s supporters said before the speech
that they were curious to hear what Clinton had to say.

“I think she is
going to answer a lot of the questions,” Gail Levine, a Clinton supporter from
Greenwich, Conn., told JTA as she walked into the banquet hall.

like Jules Spotts, a clinical psychologist from New Canaan, Conn., were not yet
sold on Clinton. He said he was skeptical because Clinton had been a
supporter of the arch-conservative Republican Barry Goldwater in the

“That is a long time to go back, but it is a large shift from
where she was then to where she is now,” Spotts said before the

After Clinton’s address – many said went on a little too long
and lacked her husband’s rhetorical flair – the debate was still open for

But it’s much too early to predict how Clinton will fare with
Jewish voters in November 2008, said Morris Amitay, a former AIPAC head and
co-founder of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

“There hasn’t even been any debate,” he said. “It’s the earliest we have ever
had a presidential campaign start. The only thing you can say about the
Jewish vote now is that it’s heavily Democratic.”

Still, debate already
has begun among political pundits, said Betsy Sheerr, past president of JACPAC,
a political action committee that supports congressional candidates who are
both pro-Israel and pro-choice.

While Clinton may be leading in polls
now, early frontrunners often fade and dark horses can gain momentum later in
the race. Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign offers a perfect example of a candidate
who seemingly came out of nowhere to win the presidency, Sheerr said.

“At this stage of the game, there are a lot of wait-and-see attitudes
and there’s going to be no clear preference in the Jewish community for any
of the candidates – except, obviously, their pro-Israel credentials
will have to be very solid,” Sheerr said. “I think people are looking to see
that they can back a winner.”

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