Lazio’s Counter-Swipe: Demands Hillary Return $500 From Arab-Leaguer

As the New York Senate race devolves into a desperate scramble for undecided Jewish voters, and each candidate scrounges for fresh ways to portray his or her opponent as a kefiyeh-wearing enemy of Israel, the Senate campaign of Rick Lazio is now assailing Hillary Rodham Clinton for accepting a $500 contribution from …

Clovis Maksoud.

Mr. Maksoud, a former Arab League representative to the United Nations who is now a professor at American University in Washington, is a vehement critic of what he refers to as the pro-Israel lobby in Congress. His vocal advocacy of Palestinian causes once landed him, along with Louis Farrakhan, on a death-threat list compiled by followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane. He is a critic of the Oslo peace accords, objects strongly to the emigration of Soviet Jews to Israel, laments “Washington’s built-in bias toward Israeli objectives” and has referred to Jerusalem as “occupied territory.”

“We believe Mrs. Clinton should return this contribution immediately,” Bryan Flood, a spokesman for Mr. Lazio, told The Observer . “Given her well-documented flip-flops on issues of critical importance to Israel, and therefore the New York Jewish community, it is very troubling that Mrs. Clinton would accept this contribution from an individual who has historically spouted harsh and even venomous rhetoric against Israel.”

This latest broadside comes as the campaigns grow ever more creative in their efforts to paint the other side as unsympathetic to Jewish New Yorkers, a crucial voting bloc in what is expected to be a tight election. The Lazio campaign is still reeling from a photo, released by the White House, that shows Mr. Lazio cheerfully clasping the hand of Yasir Arafat. It might seem a bit too optimistic for Democrats to hope that voters will be swayed by the shocking image of a U.S. Congressman politely greeting a world leader while on a diplomatic tour. Then again, Republicans had hoped to win over Jewish voters when a confessed liar with a fuzzy memory recalled that Mrs. Clinton had called him a “Jew bastard” a quarter century ago. (Oh, he actually wasn’t Jewish, and as of last report, there was no scandal surrounding the circumstances of his birth.)

But in the alternate universe that is New York ethnic politics, a middling contribution from a somewhat obscure professor has the potential to become an issue. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Mr. Maksoud contributed $500 to Mrs. Clinton on June 2 of this year. (He also gave $500 to Republican Presidential candidate George W. Bush last year.)

Explaining why such a negligible contribution was important, Mr. Flood contended that Mrs. Clinton’s willingness to accept the contribution signified something larger.

“I think it’s hugely symbolic,” he said, pointing out that Mr. Maksoud continues to oppose the transfer of the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, an important issue for some Jewish voters in New York. Mrs. Clinton is now in favor of moving the embassy, though Mr. Lazio has accused her of opposing it in the past.

“[Mr. Maksoud’s support] exposes Mrs. Clinton’s inability to articulate a clear position on the Jerusalem embassy question,” Mr. Flood said.

“Rick Lazio has cornered the market on hypocrisy,” countered Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson. “First the Arafat handshake and now this.” Referring to Mr. Maksoud’s 1999 contribution to Mr. Bush, Mr. Wolfson continued, “Does Mr. Lazio believe that this contribution calls George W. Bush’s support for Israel into question? Until Rick Lazio is willing to apply the same standard to Mr. Bush’s commitment to Israel, this is just another notch on the Lazio hypocrisy belt and another excuse to hurl personal attacks at Hillary.”

Reached by The Observer , Mr. Maksoud seemed puzzled to discover that he had suddenly become an issue in the Senate race. “I think every American citizen is entitled to contribute, irrespective of his views,” he said. To make it into an issue, he added, was “political and intellectual terrorism that seeks to exclude people from contributing to their candidate of preference.”

Mr. Maksoud also said that he disagrees with Mrs. Clinton’s recent pronouncements on the Middle East. “I think she’s showed sympathy in the past for the plight of the Palestinian people, but I think she has tailored her subsequent positions, like everybody else.… This is due to the power of the Israeli lobby, which seeks to [seize upon] any kind of indication of sympathy to the people of Palestine as if it is a license to smear a political candidate.

“She has lots to offer,” Mr. Maksoud concluded. “That doesn’t mean I agree with her positions on every level, particularly on the Palestinian question, but I think that she is somebody who deserves to use her talents in the service of the people.”

Does Anybody Care?

For all the criticism of Mrs. Clinton’s positions on Israel–she has transformed herself from a Palestinian advocate to a hawk on Jerusalem since entering the race–it is less clear whether the tit-for-tat has any real impact on the loyalties of Jewish voters. Despite Mrs. Clinton’s stumbles on the issues of Palestinian statehood and sovereignty over Jerusalem, the infamous embrace with Suha Arafat and the alleged “Jew bastard” remark, polls now show Mrs. Clinton making huge gains in the Jewish community. A recent survey by John Zogby showed her support among Jewish voters topping 70 percent for the first time–and that was before the sudden surfacing of the Lazio-Arafat photo. Similarly, Mr. Lazio’s perfectly routine handclasp with Mr. Arafat is unlikely to raise any serious doubts about his commitment to Israel.

Still, Mrs. Clinton’s gains in the Jewish community are clearly a source of frustration for the Lazio camp. “When you step back and look at the larger story, you understand that Rick has a very strong record on issues important to Israel,” Mr. Flood said. “And there are real questions about Mrs. Clinton’s inconsistencies.”

Enter the Arab professor. The Lazio campaign hopes that the invocation of Mr. Maksoud will help recapture the initiative lost when the White House dropped the Lazio-Arafat photo.

In recent days, in an effort to change the narrative, the Lazio camp has ceaselessly hammered Mrs. Clinton for accepting a variety of soft- and hard-money contributions. On Sept. 11, they demanded that Mrs. Clinton return a contribution from Paul Adler, the Rockland County Democratic chairman who was just charged with corruption in U.S. District Court. The next day, they labeled the discovery of an $8,200 contribution from one Dale Djerassi, a performance artist who prances around naked in a Batman mask, “another major fund-raising embarrassment.”