NEW YORK DAILY NEWS COLUMNIST SIDNEY ZION WAS INCORRECTLY IDENTIFIED IN AN ARTICLE WEDNESDAY. ALTHOUGH HE SUPPORTS THE RELEASE OF ISRAELI SPY JONATHAN JAY POLLARD FROM PRISON, HE IS NOT A MEMBER OF THE GROUP LED BY NEW YORK ASSEMBLYMAN DOV HIKIND THAT IS LOBBYING HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON ON THE ISSUE. (PUBLISHED 09/03/99)
A New York group is pressing Hillary Rodham Clinton to lobby her husband on behalf of a convicted Israeli spy, the clearest example yet that the first lady's unprecedented Senate race could create awkward moments for the president as interest groups trying to influence the White House perceive a way to apply pressure.
The pro-Israeli group, which held a rally Sunday in New York City, says it hopes to use Hillary Clinton's candidacy as leverage on the president to release Jonathan Jay Pollard from prison.
Under their strategy, the first lady either urges her husband to abandon his administration's policy on Pollard or she risks alienating some Jewish activists who could be vital to her Senate bid in New York.
Hillary Clinton already has taken several positions that are popular in New York but contrary to her husband's policies. They include raising questions about Medicare cuts that reduce funding for the state's teaching hospitals. But this week's events apparently mark the first time an interest group has acknowledged making demands on the first lady solely to influence the president, not to affect the Senate election, which is 14 months away.
"I know she has influence with the president, I know she can bring this to his attention in the way no one else can," New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat who represents Brooklyn, said in an interview, referring to his loose-knit coalition's efforts to free Pollard. "I would hope she would get involved and this case of Pollard would be resolved way before the election." Many expect Hillary Clinton to square off with Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani, the New York City mayor.
Some analysts predict other interest groups also will see the first lady's candidacy as a potential conduit to the White House, forcing the president and his aides to cope with an untested brand of political influence.
"It is a pressure point, it is a vulnerability," said Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University. Lobbying groups have sought to influence other presidents through relatives, he said, citing Libya's courtship of then-President Jimmy Carter's brother Billy. "But none of them are quite the same thing" as wooing one who shares the presidential bedroom, he said.
Sidney Zion, a member of Hikind's group, wrote in the New York Daily News' Aug. 5 op-ed page that Hillary Clinton may "hold the key to Jonathan Pollard's jail cell." He added: "To win, she needs a big majority of Jews in New York City. . . . Get your husband to pardon Jonathan Pollard and then we'll believe you [support Israel]."
Pollard, a former Navy intelligence analyst, is in the 14th year of a life sentence after pleading guilty to selling U.S. military secrets to Israel. His case has become a prominent cause for numerous Jewish groups that want him released. Leaders of the national security and intelligence communities strongly oppose his release, and Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton have refused to pardon him.
Hillary Clinton, who will be visiting Israel next month, has not responded to Hikind's group, which wrote her Aug. 9. Her press secretary, Marsha Berry, said yesterday she had no comment about the Pollard case or the more general topic of groups trying to pressure the president via his wife's campaign.
The first lady's office, the State Department and the president's spokesman did comment earlier this summer when Hillary Clinton told another Jewish organization, which had sent her a query, that she considers Jerusalem "the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel," and favors moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv. Both proposals break with the administration's policy. All the various spokesmen said that Hillary Clinton's views would have no effect on U.S. policy.
"The first lady was expressing her personal views and it does not complicate in any way our efforts to promote and accelerate the Middle East peace process," State Department spokesman James Foley said at the time.
Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the Hikind group's ploy is so brazen that Hillary Clinton has little choice but to ignore it, lest she be accused of opportunism or yielding to political threats. "I can't imagine her lobbying in this regard," he said. "It would be so blatantly inappropriate that the backlash from it would far exceed any votes she would get in the Orthodox Jewish community."
Still, Hess said, interest groups will find Hillary Clinton an unusually appealing target because she's the first American to run for a major office while married to a president.
"I doubt there will be anything as blatant as [Hikind's appeal] coming up, but there will be subliminal issues" raised by other groups, Hess said. "And of course she's opened herself to that" by attending a health care forum in Cooperstown on July 8 where she questioned the president's 1997 agreement with Congress that affected federal payments to teaching hospitals, a major issue in New York with its concentration of academic medical centers. "That was a mistake on her part," Hess said.
New York hospital groups say they have lobbied Hillary Clinton on the funding issue only in her capacity as a Senate contender.
"The hospital community and its supporters in New York have approached her as a Senate candidate," said Jeannie Cross, spokeswoman for the Healthcare Association of New York. "We have not approached her as an inside lobbyist to her husband's ear. We have very good relations with the White House," she said, noting that representatives of her association have met in Washington with Vice President Gore and others.
More recently, some Republicans have said the first lady's Senate hopes may have played a role in the president's offer to reduce the prison sentences of 16 members of a militant Puerto Rican nationalist group. Their early release is opposed by the FBI and other law enforcement groups, but is supported by many liberals and Hispanic groups, again, an important constituency in a New York election. The White House says the Senate race played no role in the president's decision.
Since launching her exploratory Senate bid, Hillary Clinton also has differed with Clinton administration policies on dairy supports. On July 9, she said she supported extending the life of the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact, which promotes price supports for dairy farmers, a big constituency in upstate New York. The White House has proposed replacing the compact with a national price support system that would be less generous to farmers. A local farm bureau director asked Clinton to state her views on the compact during a forum in Rome, N.Y., but compact officials say they have not directly lobbied candidates on the issue.