Hillary Rodham Clinton today faced a barrage of criticism for failing to object to a diatribe against Israel by the wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and a key Jewish elected official called on her to end her bid for a New York Senate seat.
Criticism came from Clinton's likely Senate opponent, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R), and his Republican backers, as well as from Jewish leaders who would be natural Democratic supporters of a Clinton campaign--but for their concerns about her approach to Middle East issues.
The latest controversy broke out Thursday. Suha Arafat welcomed Clinton on a visit to the Palestinian city of Ramallah on the West Bank, but then launched into a verbal attack on Israel. Arafat criticized Israel's "heavy legacy" from its occupation of the West Bank and accused Israel of using "toxic gas" when putting down Palestinian riots and contaminating the water supply.
Israeli officials were outraged, and a top Palestinian official today expressed regret for any embarrassment the first lady had suffered.
Asked why Clinton sat silently through Arafat's comments, Howard Wolfson, her exploratory Senate campaign spokesman, said though she was "outraged" and "infuriated," she held her fire at the time for fear of upsetting the delicate Middle East peace process.
After the event, Clinton characterized Arafat's remarks as "inflammatory charges" and "excessive rhetoric." Today in Jordan, while touring the ancient city of Petra, she told reporters: "I do not believe any kind of inflammatory rhetoric or baseless charges are good for the peace process."
This was not enough for New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D), whose heavily Jewish Brooklyn district is among the most cohesive and powerful in New York City. Hikind said Jewish voters in New York have been looking for grounds to support Clinton's candidacy, especially considering her earlier advocacy of Palestinian statehood. Though she has never repeated that stand--and refused to do so during her Palestinian visit--it remains a thorn in her relations with New York Jews.
"For people who want to support her, look for a way to support her, this really makes it very very difficult," said Hikind, who described Arafat's remarks as "antisemitic canards reminiscent of the antiquated, irrational, 'the Jews are poisoning the wells' libel."
Clinton "could have said something. What would have been wrong? Number two, she could have walked away. Imagine how powerful that would have been," Hikind said. "I don't know who's advising her. It must be somebody on Rudy Giuliani's team. But this is ridiculous," he continued. "I'm calling for her to get out. Just give someone else a chance so we in the Democratic Party can elect a Democrat. I think she is slowly self-destructing."
Wolfson dismissed Hikind's comments, saying: "Dov Hikind endorsed Al D'Amato over Chuck Schumer. He was wrong then and he is wrong now," referring to the 1998 New York Senate campaign in which then-Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D) routed Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R).
Clinton's concerns at the time of the Arafat speech, Wolfson said, were broader than New York politics. "If she had only been concerned about politics in New York, she would have gotten up and walked out of the room," he said. "But the fact is that that would have damaged the peace process."
The Ramallah episode looked like a gift of arrows for the Giuliani quiver, and the mayor did not hesitate to fire some of them. The presumptive Senate race between Giuliani and Clinton will be tight, with polls putting them in a virtual dead heat. The city's Jewish voters make up 12 percent of the electorate and are being courted heavily by both camps.
Israel's importance as a New York issue was reflected in today's headlines. "Ouch," shouted the tabloid-style front page of the Long Island-based daily, Newsday. "Shame on Hillary," blared the New York Post.
Asked by reporters at City Hall today how he would have handled the Suha Arafat situation, Giuliani said he "would have objected" to her statements. "I would have made my position clear, and I certainly wouldn't have embraced the person that said it--hugged them and kissed them," he said.
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin described Arafat's statements as "baseless" and said, "We certainly do not believe that these kind of inflammatory charges or excessive rhetoric is helpful." He added, "These are the kinds of issues that should be raised at the negotiating table."