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Clinton Visit Wows Most Israelis, but Some American Jews Skeptical

February 27, 2002
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Israelis are praising Hillary Clinton’s recent swing through Jerusalem as a successful public relations trip that makes amends for her past indiscretions toward Jews and Israel.

But some visiting American Jewish leaders are critical of what the New York senator did not say, lamenting the absence of any pro-Israel legislative promises.

Others were left wondering whether Clinton’s strong words — she sharply criticized Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat — and whirlwind trips to the city’s key political and terror sites reflected political acumen more than genuine passion.

Israeli officials generally expressed delight, with Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert emphasizing the morale boost Clinton’s visit gave his beleaguered citizens.

“It really was an important trip,” Olmert told JTA, two days after buying Clinton a cup of coffee at the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem, scene of a huge suicide bombing in August. “It gets us out of our feeling of isolation.”

The bulk of the American Jewish leaders who gathered here for the annual Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations also expressed satisfaction with Clinton’s trip. Her itinerary included visits to the graves of Yitzhak and Leah Rabin, meetings with terror victims at a Hadassah hospital, three speeches, the pizzeria coffee session, a visit to the Western Wall and a trip to Magen David Adom, whose ambulances have raced to and from numerous bombing scenes.

“It hit the right buttons,” said Leonard Cole, outgoing chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “She said the right things, and I think she meant it.”

Slightly less taken was Julio Messer, head of the American Friends of Likud.

“In the wake of Arafat’s war of terrorism, I’m glad she’s changed her position,” he said. “I would hope she’s also changed her mind.”

Most who encountered Clinton were impressed by her charm.

“She’s very smart, very politically savvy,” said Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of the Religious Zionist Organization of America. “She’s certainly repairing the damage done by kissing Mrs. Arafat and so on. I think it’s now forgiven. Her person-to-person skills are amazing.”

During her 36 hours in Jerusalem, Clinton managed to find the right sentiment on each occasion, as noted by the country’s leading daily, Ha’aretz.

“It was a display of her political-diplomatic skills, with the kind of maudlin American polish that no local Israeli politicians can muster with any authenticity,” columnist Saguy Green wrote of Clinton’s Hadassah hospital encounter with terror victims and doctors.

Among Clinton’s political aims was to repair the damage from her embrace of Arafat’s wife, Suha, on a previous visit to the region. Jews and Israelis were aghast when Clinton stood stoically by as Suha Arafat accused Israel of poisoning Palestinian water supplies — and then kissed the Palestinian first lady.

This time, Clinton’s political rhetoric was filled with condemnation of Yasser Arafat, who she said was “squarely to blame” for the current violence.

She also lashed out at Iran, claiming its supply of weapons and $100 million annual terrorist budget, together with its efforts to develop nuclear weapons and missiles, make it a grave threat to both Israel and America.

Clinton also stressed that since Sept. 11, America increasingly understands that Israel is fighting the same battle against terrorism.

Yet Clinton’s rhetoric failed to convince Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

“Although we appreciate the condemnation of Arafat, we regret that she did not offer any specific pro-Israel legislative proposals, such as cutting off the $100 million annual aid to the Palestinian Authority, placing Arafat’s Al-Fatah organization on the list of terror groups or getting America to move its embassy to Jerusalem,” he said.

Klein also complained that Clinton had “not been at the forefront” of pro-Israel legislative efforts.

In particular, he cited moves to compel the U.S. government to indict anyone who murders Americans anywhere in the world — the so-called Koby Mandell Act, named after the young Israeli-American boy who was snatched by Palestinians while on a hike last year and then beaten and stabbed to death in a cave.

Klein also pointed out that Clinton had not stated her position on whether the Palestine Liberation Organization should be forced to close its offices in New York.

“In general, this trip left me concerned that she is not as supportive of Israel in concrete terms as one would expect from any New York senator,” Klein said.

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