As a probable candidate for the Senate, Hillary Rodham Clinton has heard plenty on her "listening tours" of New York. But she had to come halfway around the world, to the Palestinian city of Ramallah, to really get an earful.
At a grant-giving ceremony today, Clinton listened politely as Suha Arafat, the outspoken wife of the Palestinian leader, delivered a scathing attack on "the Israeli authority's occupation" of the West Bank, saying it resulted in the poisoning of Palestinian air, water and ground with toxic substances, contributing to cancer and other diseases.
Considering that Clinton's detour to the West Bank came during a two-day visit to Israel, Arafat's remarks seemed awkward for the first lady. They may also provide fodder for New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Clinton's likely opponent in the New York Senate race, who has courted Jewish voters for years.
The episode cast a spotlight on the two hats Clinton wears these days. As first lady, she was practically duty-bound during her four-day Middle East trip to call on the Palestinians, who are partners in a peace process promoted by the United States. But as a presumed candidate in New York, with its critical Jewish vote, she declined--even in a Palestinian-controlled city--to repeat the call she made last year for an independent Palestinian state.
The result was that no one seemed happy. Israelis were furious at Arafat's remarks. Palestinians were disappointed that Clinton was mum on statehood. Some American Jews criticized Clinton for not condemning Arafat's comments, and Clinton issued a pithy statement afterward: "What was said today in Ramallah is an example of why the president at Oslo urged the parties to refrain from making inflammatory charges or engaging in excessive rhetoric and to deal with any issues at the negotiating table."
The incident in Ramallah overshadowed other items on Clinton's itinerary, including a tour of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum, a speech on Mideast peace and a visit to the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site.
In her trip to the wall, her second as first lady, she was warmly received by several hundred Israelis and tourists, many of them Americans. Her head covered by a broad-brimmed black straw hat in the style of religious Jews, she paused in front of the 2,000-year-old wall and bowed her head. Then, with her daughter Chelsea and her host, Israeli First Lady Nava Barak, she worked the crowd, delighting most onlookers but annoying a few.
"You can't concentrate too much on your prayer with her here and her big entourage," said Yossi Pieprz, 20, a Jewish student from Brooklyn. "If she wants Jewish votes, she should stay in New York."
After Ramallah, Clinton may do just that.
On entering the conference hall, Clinton responded with a tight smile when asked if she still supports establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
When she endorsed that position last year--a position that went beyond the policy of her husband's administration--she created a sensation. Palestinians cheered but many Israelis were dismayed. They suspected it reflected President Clinton's personal opinion, despite U.S. policy that statehood is up to the Israelis and Palestinians.
The First Lady has never repeated the remark. And she declined to do so today even though it was clear the Palestinians were dying to hear it. All three Palestinian speakers, including Arafat, mentioned statehood and independence. One, the health minister, reminded her that "the words you have said [last year] entered the hearts of every Palestinian."
But Clinton would not be moved, saying only that she hopes for "a better future for the Palestinian people."
"We expected more; that's for sure," said Jihad Meshal, a Palestinian health official who was among speakers at the event marking a U.S. grant to help mother-and-child health centers.
Still, it was Arafat's remarks on the "heavy legacy" of Israel's occupation of the West Bank that generated the most heat. Without mentioning specifics, she condemned "the daily use of toxic gas" and chemicals by Israel, charging it has fouled 80 percent of water supplies in Palestinian areas and led to higher incidences of cancer.
Arafat, who spends most of her time in Paris, visits Palestinian areas infrequently. When she speaks publicly, her comments are often blunt. In the past, for example, she has criticized corruption in the Palestinian Authority, run by her husband, Yasser Arafat.
Her remarks today, to an audience of journalists, Palestinian dignitaries and "Mrs. Clinton, my dear friend," caught Palestinian officials off guard and unable to furnish an immediate explanation. Israeli officials denounced her comments. They have "no relation to reality," the prime minister's office said.
Some American Jews focused criticism on Clinton. "By remaining silent in the face of a vicious anti-Israel blood libel, she gives the impression she tolerates such outrageous, Nazi-like statements," said Morton Klein, head of the right-of-center Zionist Organization of America.