Hillary Stumbles Through Jerusalem

JERUSALEM-Three words, if Palestine becomes Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate Waterloo: Don’t blame Suha.

Mrs. Yasir Arafat did mortify Mrs. Clinton during their brief but bruising encounter on Thursday, Nov. 11, at the Palestinian perch of Ramallah. There, as you may have heard, Mrs. Arafat felt moved to apprise the First Lady, who was fresh from laying a wreath at Yad Vashem, a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, of “the daily and extensive use of toxic gasses by the Israeli forces over the past years.” Soon after, of course, came the kiss of political death, that lethal two-cheeked Europeck, complete with the audiovisual dirge that soundtracks every politician’s worst nightmare, of flashbulbs popping and cameras whirring-to say nothing of the predatory cackle of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, faintly but distinctly audible all the way from New York.

That was, to be sure, a shot seen round the world. But it wasn’t until a day later, in a markedly more salutary setting in Jordan, that Mrs. Clinton did much more legitimate, and perhaps much more lasting, damage to herself. “Is a Palestinian, or in any way divided, Jerusalem, something that should even be countenanced or thought about?” a reporter asked her.

The setting was the gorgeous ghost of a Byzantine church above the ancient, awesome ruins of Petra; an airy, sun-swept vista that felt far, far away from the grit and the grievances of yesterday’s West Bank. In the mere day since Mrs. Arafat had emitted those noxious rhetorical fumes, Mrs. Clinton had enjoyed, one after another, several of those unmitigated occasions of prestige that make being a First Lady seem sooo much more fun than trying to become a senator. Straight from Ramallah, she had headed right back into Zionism central, to Jerusalem and the Western Wall. There, duly donning a hat for reverence, she was photographed with Israeli First Lady Nava Barak as well as with her head-scarved daughter, Chelsea. Then it was on to Tel Aviv to deliver, to warm applause, the 1999 Yitzhak Rabin lecture. That morning, having stayed overnight in Amman, Syria, she had helicoptered low over marvelous miles of Jordan’s stark desert sands to Petra, where tour groups from Great Neck, L.I., come across the occasional Bedouin on camelback, and where the first mother and daughter met up with Princess Alia, the thirtysomething, leather-jacketed sister of the cool new king. Later, at the church, she inspected some extremely old tiles and presented a check toward restoration without being heckled or harangued by any of her hosts. And then, hooray , she decided to take questions-and, of course, to take a shot or two at her dear friend, Mrs. Arafat, at whose Israel-bashing charges she flung “inflammatory and baseless,” and whatnot.

It all had the feel of coming out of danger, into safety, but in the long run, Mrs. Clinton was actually going in the opposite direction.

“I don’t think it’s useful to comment on any of the issues that are part of the final status negotiations,” she responded to the Jerusalem question. “I certainly will not.”

And that is why, if the messy matter of Middle Eastern peace serves to kill or wound her in the New York wars, the First Lady cannot blame Suha. For it was Mrs. Clinton who, in the spring of 1998, called (sort of) for a Palestinian state. It was Mrs. Clinton who, amid the launch of her “listening tour” last summer, wrote a letter to the head of the Orthodox Union in which she cited her belief in Jerusalem as “the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel.” And now, it was Mrs. Clinton who was recusing herself from the conversation as if she had never joined it.

Not that Mrs. Arafat did not do her bit for Giuliani 2000. Or perhaps she just hadn’t gotten the memo: Giving a $3.8 million check to launch a United States Agency for International Aid project to improve the health of Palestinian mothers and children was only the ostensible purpose of Mrs. Clinton’s visit. The actual purpose, of course, was for the First Lady to slip herself into and out of a Palestinian tableau without smudging, let alone sandblasting, her all-important image as a friend of Israel. And for, oh, two, three seconds there, her West Bank counterpart seemed to be going right along. Only after Mrs. Arafat, looking every bit as dry-cleaned and nail-polished as the next ceremonial spouse on good behavior, rose and welcomed Mrs. Clinton to “the land of peace, love and tolerance,” did she essay her little blast of bile, contempt and slander.

Mrs. Clinton was soon to be chastised for her failure to scowl during that hairy hello, or to spit upon her hostess afterward. But for anyone who frequents the First Lady’s “listening events” from Bath to Buffalo to Oneonta, she might as well have done both. There was no repetitive, rhythmical nodding for Suha; no knowing chuckles; no jotting-down of notes. Mrs. Clinton just sat still in her chair, as if that airline-looking plastic translation headset were pouring a loud, mesmerizing screech into her ear instead of a simultaneous translation from the incendiary Arabic. Her eyes had the blank, wide-open daze of a fresh corpse, or of a person seeing a sight too horrible to register: perhaps the busload of reporters at the back of the room, practically high-fiving each other with glee. And she wasn’t so much smiling as leaving her lips up.

So Mrs. Arafat was the star of the screw-Hillary show. But in terms of what could prove most corrosive for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, she was not the most threatening figure on the stage. On that level, apart from the major factor of her fame, she would be only the third most problematic Palestinian of the three who spoke. Going strictly on what they said, Mrs. Clinton’s truly unhelpful hosts were far less prominent and far more polite: Dr. Jihad Mashal, chairman of the health project’s coordinating council, and Dr. Riad Zanoun, the Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Health. “I hope that next time, we host you in an independent Palestinian state,” enthused Dr. Mashal, “with its capital of Jerusalem!”

“I would like to remind you of words that you have said and that have entered the heart of every Palestinian,” the grandfatherly Dr. Zanoun intoned admiringly, as if he were handing the First Lady a sweet bouquet instead of tossing her a live grenade. “You said … that a … just … peace [depends] on the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Which led to the question about the status of Jerusalem, which led to the non-answer, which leads to the problem.

Granted, the idea that Mrs. Clinton’s not answering that question on Jerusalem could be a bigger problem than her not dissing Mrs. Arafat is ridiculous to Democratic types in New York, some of whom are casting around for a new candidate. Even for those who remain enthusiastic about her candidacy, l’affaire Suha has unleashed an uncomfortable feeling that (a) the First Lady may have blown it with too many Jewish voters, without whom she cannot win; and (b) given her backlog of missteps, she might blow it with everybody else, too. Both are important points. But neither is the most important.

Notwithstanding her subsequent-and, no two ways about it, laughable -assertion, by way of explaining her delayed response, that a later State Department translation had moved her to speak where the very similar simultaneous one had left her silent, Mrs. Clinton clearly knew what Mrs. Arafat was doing to her at the time. She just didn’t know what to do back to Mrs. Arafat. And that, the general umbrage aside, is not all that hard to understand. First of all, there were peace negotiations going on, right in the very Grand Park hotel where the relevant lips were locked. (Come to think of it, the actually proceeding peace process, as in the negotiators sitting in chairs, at tables, splitting the hairs of sovereignty, reportedly got shifted to another hotel, so that Mrs. Clinton could come to this one and show her support for it.) Secondly, even if it were determined that a little anti-Suha stomping would do more good than harm to that process, that is a determination that Mrs. Clinton, who is, after all, still in Barbara Bush’s old job, had absolutely no standing to make. Thirdly, it is true that a person with perfect political pitch might have produced the ideal, strong-but-safe statement to make on the spot. It is not, however, beyond human comprehension that a person who lacks such an ear-of whom Mrs. Clinton is manifestly one; she did, after all, come here in the first place , against extremely pointed political advice-might hesitate. (Human comprehension does not, however, extend to the rest of the afternoon, when, safely out of Suha country, she could and should have figured out something. At the same time, the ease with which one can imagine that the Mayor would have thrown a bitch slap and bolted does not fill one with the urge to put him in the hottest spots on earth, either.)

“People know where Rudy Giuliani stands,” said Bruce Teitelbaum, head of Mr. Giuliani’s political action committee and his liaison to the Jewish community. Mr. Teitelbaum was a little fuzzy on a cell phone from New York, but he was obviously having the time of his flacking life. “He’s clear on his positions and he’s principled in his beliefs. That’s a good thing.”

And, when it comes to this place, it is a damned easy thing, too. For Mr. Giuliani, as for so many New York politicians, Israel is the ultimate no-brainer. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, he can wail at the wall all day long without a by-your-leave to the Arafats. He can say, as he did recently, that he “probably wouldn’t have gone” to Ramallah, while his aides insisted that he “strongly supports the peace process.” Well, what does that mean? Mr. Giuliani, being a municipal figure who is not doubling as a national one, never has to spell it out. By contrast, Mrs. Clinton is the rare, if not unique, non-incumbent who, in a sense, already is where she wants to go. Unlike, say, her husband, who ran as a hawk for Israel, only to see the light of peace post-election, she has no so such lags in which to luxuriate. (Her luxuries are along the lines of picking and choosing what areas of policy she wants to weigh in on, but that’s another week.) And unlike, say, Mr. Giuliani, she cannot blithely bang on about standing up to the Palestinians, safe in the knowledge that her pronouncements have the approximate real-world impact of singing in the shower. Such are the inherent, and possibly fatal, conflicts of running for office while First Lady. That’s her problem, and it is up to her to solve it. It is only fair to note, though, that the fact that Mr. Giuliani does not have these conflicts gives him a political advantage, not a moral monopoly.

With the Jerusalem dodge, though, he gets both. “She was right to say that,” said a New York Jewish Democrat who blasted Mrs. Clinton on the Suha stuff, but gave her a pass on sidestepping the question on the status of Jerusalem. “She couldn’t make any comment, not in an Arab country.”

For people who know a great deal about the diplomatic delicacies of the Middle East, that may be true. But for other New Yorkers-gentile or Jew, servant or free-the notion of embracing a position in Pelham, and eschewing it in Petra, rings false. It is the faint air of falsity that will cling to her, and be made to cling to her, like the smell of cigarettes in a smoker’s clothing, even as the image of Mrs. Arafat gets thrown in with the rest of the political laundry in New York.

After all, the status of Jerusalem is not an explosive accusation that can be dismissed as the random (or not so random) histrionics of an aging guerrilla’s dippy wife. It is a major point of the negotiations, and a thorny one, too, even among Israelis who are resigned to the idea of a Palestinian state. Indeed, talking to a number of Israelis, one gets the feeling that Mr. Giuliani is more paranoid about the security of Israel than is the average Israeli. “What do you think is there now?” shrugged Doron Mordchai, a cabdriver who has lived in Jerusalem for all of his 36 years. “Official, unofficial, it’s a state.” He is, however, anything but resigned to the notion of dividing his home city: “My feeling is, if they talk about Jerusalem, it’s going to be a war.” It is so thorny, in fact, that Mrs. Clinton is wise to keep quiet about it, especially considering that the Arabs and the Israelis seem surprisingly capable of making war or peace quite well, thank you, without the active opining of foreign mayors or First Ladies. But she has spoken out about it before-and it’s no good shutting up now out of some noble refusal to “play politics with the peace process.” (What was she playing when she sent that Orthodox Union letter? Parcheesi?)

Left home in America with the rest of her political staff, Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson must have spent the week in a compounded state of horror and helplessness, as if his house were burning down on TV. “Her position is unchanged,” said Mr. Wolfson on Jerusalem. Oh, so it’s her position on having a position that would seem to have shifted in flight.

“Jeez, why can’t all Palestinians be like Rania?” Mrs. Clinton did not actually ask that question, but she must have wanted to. An ethnic Palestinian who grew up in Kuwait, the stunning brunette, 29-year-old wife of Jordan’s King Abdullah could have taught Mrs. Arafat a thing or two about manners. Through several events over two post-Suha days, the Queen kept her ankles crossed, her posture perfect and her remarks innocuous-so innocuous, in fact, that the First Lady felt free almost to fall asleep during one of them. (It was about microcredit for poor women. Nothing about anybody gassing anybody.) Still, it was a very safe non-event with the Queen that wrought the cruelest irony of the entire trip. It was a Saturday-morning conference on early childhood development, held in a ballroom of the Grand Hyatt hotel in Amman. It was conducted 90 percent in Arabic and 100 percent, presumably, in flatterese. But whether that reflected a stroke of luck or of vigilant staff work, it was still, for purposes of the First Lady, a dollar short and a few days late: None of the simultaneous-translation headphones worked.

On the last stop of her last day in Jordan, Mrs. Clinton, along with daughter Chelsea, joined the recently widowed, stunning-in-a-different-way Queen Noor to visit the grave site of King Hussein. As the imam prayed, both Americans closed their eyes and bowed their covered heads. The Queen raised her palms and moved her lips. All three did a pretty good impersonation of non-awareness of the world press, staring at them. After a very short time, they said their goodbyes. Mrs. Clinton was quickly claimed by her motorcade, and Queen Noor hopped into a jeep and took the wheel.

As a Westerner and a widow where she is, Queen Noor is obviously facing some personal and political challenges of her own. But at just that moment, if she had looked through the bulletproof glass of her limo, at a smart, strong woman about to drive off on her own, Mrs. Clinton might well have felt the urge to switch places.

But of course, she can’t. There’s too much waiting for her in New York.

“If she really believes that commenting on the status of Jerusalem harms the peace process,” said Mr. Teitelbaum, still having a ball, “why did she for the first time declare her support when talking to the Orthodox Union?”

Memo to the First Lady: They’ve figured out that they can’t keep hitting so hard on Hillary-and-Suha. Now, they’re back to hitting on just Hillary.

Agreeing to smooch Suha Arafat enhanced an existent, troubling impression that Mrs. Clinton has no political instincts. Refusing to answer the Jerusalem question enhanced the pre-existing, troubling impression that she has no political core.

Only time will tell which hurts her more.