“This woman has no principles.”
“I held her in high regard, but she’s not the first person to sell us out.”
“I think she stinks, she lies and that’s it!”
Those are all words recently spoken about Hillary Rodham Clinton. If they came from the mouths of Westchester moms troubled by the carpetbagger issue, Jewish liberals or moderates with lingering doubts about Mrs. Clinton’s commitment to the strength and security of Israel, or African-Americans thinking about sitting out the Senate race, they would be a real sign of trouble for her campaign. But those words come from the mouths of Palestinians who are bitterly convinced that the First Lady has betrayed them, and therefore they represent no trouble at all.
“It doesn’t come up,” said a top campaign aide about the debate not raging within Team Hillary as to whether there might be something disquieting about a First Lady–or even a Senate candidate–treating the violent crisis in the Middle East strictly in terms of playing the ethnic political percentages.
All things considered, it is extremely ironic and even a little poignant. No matter what you think of them on any other front, the Palestinians offer some of the most compelling proof that, to some extent, Mrs. Clinton’s detractors are wrong about her. It is not possible to talk to even a few Palestinians, in this country and in the Middle East, and think that what Mrs. Clinton said or did as First Lady did not have a profound effect on the real lives of real people. But when they speak most admiringly of her, they are usually speaking in the past tense. In the short run, of course, that will probably serve Mrs. Clinton well. In the long run, however, it is fair to wonder what it means for the rest of us.
In the long run, though, as Keynes put it, we are all dead–or so her advisers argue Mrs. Clinton would be, politically, if she failed to do what she has done in the way of “distancing” herself from all things Palestinian. “Fuzzy math” may be all the rage on the Presidential level, but when it comes to this week in pandering, the calculus could not be more clear. Exact numbers are elusive, but according to pollster John Zogby, it is safe to say that Jewish voters outnumber Arab-Americans in the statewide electorate by a ratio of roughly five to one. In order to win, a Democratic candidate needs something like two-thirds of the Jewish vote. Having set a fire of suspicion amongst Jewish-Americans in 1998, when she made favorable mention of the idea of a Palestinian state, and then doused it with gasoline during her 1999 visit to Ramallah, when she kissed a Suha Arafat who had just insulted Israel, Mrs. Clinton had excellent reason to fear that she could fall far short of that threshold. Therefore, she has been adding overtime to the overtime she’s already been working to reassure Jewish voters with a to-the-pander-born, veritably Al D’Amato-esque obviousness that has built to a crescendo. Her all-but-official slogan: She kvells , she kvetches , she cares–about Jonathan Pollard, about Iraqi Jews, about the content of Palestinian textbooks, even, it appears, about the every thought, hope, wish and dream of Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, whose godlike control of massive numbers of votes was not known to the world in general, but which the Clinton campaign seems to be treating as a given. Subtle it isn’t, but effective the strategy looks to be: Mrs. Clinton’s numbers among Jewish voters–not coincidentally like her numbers overall–have been looking better and better.
Moreover, those disturbed either by the Palestinian-inflected “before” aspect of Mrs. Clinton’s Middle Eastern trajectory, or the, um, opportune quality of the “after” aspect, will find little to admire in her opponent. “I was with Lazio on that trip,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, D.C., referring to the occasion of Representative Rick Lazio’s own smiling handshake with Yasir Arafat, photographic evidence of which was later released by the White House. “He was thrilled to be on that trip, and thrilled to meet Arafat.”
And even the most pro-Israel individual might have been struck by the reluctance of either candidate to earmark a syllable of compassion for the most explicitly blameless of Palestinians. (“The tears of a Palestinian child are as dear to me as the tears of an Israeli child,” a Palestinian-American New Yorker told The Observer. This is the type of thing Mrs. Clinton still says all the time, but only if the children are Catholic and Protestant.)
Indeed, the First Lady abandoned her attempt to characterize the situation temperately only after her opponent made no such attempt at all. “The guy is a total idiot and he’s pushing her in that direction,” said Najat Arafat Khelil–no relation to the Arafats–who is national president of the Palestinian American Congress. (It was Ms. Khelil who opined to The Observer that Mrs. Clinton has no principles.)
So there is no point in pretending that the two candidates’ hysterical pandering will work out as a minus for either of them. Before Mrs. Clinton puts it in the plus column, though, it is fair to ask at what cost–and not just to Palestinians who feel let down, but in terms that transcend the Middle East. As her opponent has self-servingly but accurately pointed out, recent events cannot help but stir the entire question of her real role in the Clinton administration. Taken over the full course of her year-long campaign, the official version has it that Mrs. Clinton has weaved her way in and out of relevance in perfect sync with the requirements of her candidacy.
Her dove-to-hawk makeover at least complicates her image as a heroic humanitarian in the mold of Eleanor Roosevelt. And it underscores her chronic aversion to clarity: Whether one despises, dismisses, or admires her previous activities with regard to the Palestinians, one must, in the total absence of a cogent explanation from Mrs. Clinton, simply wonder where, precisely, those activities fit into her current world view.
In the current context, it has been the administration-player question that has begged itself most insistently. At various points in the course of her campaign, Mrs. Clinton has declined to comment on sensitive matters at sensitive junctures, on the grounds that given the height of her status and the delicacy of the peace process, it would be improper for her to comment on sensitive matters at sensitive junctures. For a time, she has been inching almost coquettishly away from the administration line: expressing “deep concern” here, slipping in a semi-statement there, occasionally breaking her self-imposed silence on conversations with the President, as she recently did at the Park East Synagogue, when she throatily intoned to the panel of journalists conducting a forum for The Jewish Week that she had made her views known on Mr. Pollard to the President. Still, the past week has been startling. As the peace process, like a glass globe trembling in the fingertips of its creators, threatened to shatter once and for all, Mrs. Clinton spoke out at vivid variance with the administration that was, by her simultaneous account, doing everything in its power to save it.
On Friday, Sept. 29, the U.S. State Department rebuked right-wing Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon for his visit to the Temple Mount. At first skirting the question, Mrs. Clinton later defended Mr. Sharon’s right to visit the religious site. On Saturday, Oct. 7, the Security Council of the United Nations issued a strongly anti-Israeli resolution. The United States, although denouncing the resolution, abstained from it; Mrs. Clinton lashed out against it. In the course of the WCBS-TV debate on Sunday, Mrs. Clinton used words like “clear” and “total” to describe Mr. Arafat’s responsibility for the violence on the Palestinian side. Making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did not sound so sure.
Clearly, the responsibilities of a Secretary of State differ from those of an aspiring New York Senator. And what’s at issue is not the response advocated by anyone–but the context in which the response was made. Is she is, or is she ain’t, a key player in this administration? “She is not viewed as a major administration figure,” said Ed Abington, a former U.S. consul in Jerusalem who is now a political consultant to the Palestinian authority, emphasizing that in the aftermath of the breakdown of the July peace talks at Camp David, for instance, when both Clintons chided Mr. Arafat, it was the President’s words, not those of his wife, that resonated in the region.
O.K., then: When it comes to the conduct of such matters, Mrs. Clinton is not particularly relevant, and therefore need not be particularly responsible. But such a low-impact vision of the First Lady would be very difficult to square with the version being simultaneously presented. Same weekend, different peace process: On the evening of Friday, Oct. 6, at an event sponsored by The Irish Voice , and the following morning, when she received the glowing endorsement of former Senator George Mitchell, Mrs. Clinton was lavishly praised by a variety of admirers as a key presence in the Irish peace process. She was praised for involving herself symbolically (traveling several times to Northern Ireland, where no American First Lady had previously visited; for meeting with women “from both traditions,” Catholic and Protestant). She was praised for involving herself substantively (weighing in on behalf of a visa being issued to controversial Sinn Fein figure Gerry Adams; forging personal relationships with every player in the negotiations). Indeed, she was praised her for involving herself currently: the previous week, Mrs. Clinton met with a number of the Irish deportees who hope to be part of the Good Friday Agreement.
Saints preserve us! That must have been a terrific, multilayered role she played. It sounds, in fact, very much like the role she played in–or at least her general disposal toward–the Middle East before she became a Senate candidate. If ever the words of an American First Lady resonated among ordinary people, Mrs. Clinton’s did with the sentence she wishes she never spoke, in regard to a Palestinian state.
“Out of desperation, any little positive remark they hear gives them tremendous hope,” said Ms. Khelil, in answer to the question of whether that statement, which sparked such a furor in upper echelons, trickled down to the masses.
“The community was jubilant to find out that here was an American person, with access to the highest levels of the administration, who has the courage to stand alone,” said Maher Abdulqader, a registered Republican and activist who is upset with the First Lady’s current posture but still plans to vote for her. “She went the extra mile, and she wasn’t shy about it … I respected her tremendously.”
“It took us sky-high,” said Isam Mualla, a Brooklyn resident who was present on Dec. 14, 1998, when the Clintons visited the Palestinian National Council. On that occasion, by numerous accounts, the First Lady received an even warmer welcome than did the President. According to Mr. Mualla: “Everyone had a feeling that they wanted to have her come to their own house.”
So the Palestinians liked her, they really liked her. This does not make her a tool of the Arafats or an enemy of Israel. But Mrs. Clinton does not say that. Nor does she articulate a progression away from Palestinian sympathy. She just “distances” herself. Unsurprisingly, this does not leave a good taste in the mouth of the distanced-from.
“Yes, I did know her a little bit,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a former spokeswoman for the Palestinian Liberation Organization and currently one of the handful of women in the Palestinian legislature. Ms. Ashrawi is the source of the comment that she once held Mrs. Clinton in high regard, but feels she has been sold out. Times have changed. According to Ms. Khelil, in preparing for her 1998 trip with the President, Mrs. Clinton had her chief of staff, Melanne Verveer, contact representatives of several Arab-American women’s organizations to make suggestions for her itinerary. Ms. Khelil attended a meeting in the Old Executive Office Building, suggested a visit to the refugee camp and was “elated” when Mrs. Clinton did make a visit, with Mrs. Arafat. For that matter, Mrs. Clinton did go to see Mrs. Arafat–and if, in the subsequent days of distancing, some Jews remained suspicious of her taking of the hard line, some Palestinians did, too.
About the Palestinian state, “I would believe what she said before,” said Ms. Khelil, “because what she said before was not for any gain. Now she’s pandering and she’s looking for votes.” The afternoon that she spoke to The Observer , Ms. Khelil got a phone call from the White House, inviting her to a meeting. What if she got a phone call from the white house in Chappaqua, asking how to smooth things over?
“I would say, ‘Which Hillary Clinton shall I believe? Did you totally change your opinion or is it just a ploy?’” said Ms. Khelil. “I don’t know if I would get a straight answer, but that’s what I would ask.”
Even as the distancing continued, Mrs. Clinton gave some signs of hoping to keep in touch. “I’ve been with Mrs. Clinton at the home of Palestinian-Americans in Washington where she spoke eloquently to them of wanting to be in support of everyone [involved in the peace process],” said the Arab-American Institute’s Mr. Zogby, a longtime admirer of both Clintons. Mr. Zogby still lauds the President as having made “Arab-Americans feel included for the first time” in American public life, and for having done much to discredit the idea of Jewish-Arab involvement as a zero-sum game, in which everything that is good for Arabs is by definition bad for Jews.
Now, however, he expressed real anger at the First Lady, most recently for saying, as she did at the Jewish Week forum, that she “wouldn’t have gone to the West Bank. She wouldn’t have met with Mrs. Arafat. She wouldn’t in any way have reached out to both sides.… She was making the point that she would do only what’s needed to represent the people of New York, as if–code, as we read it–there are no Arab-Americans in New York.”
But hey, can’t a politically savvy person realize that while Mrs. Clinton may have made her own bed, she’ll lose if she lies in it? “That’s bullshit,” said Mr. Zogby. “Her need to recraft her image should not [penalize] hundreds of thousands of people who were innocent when she made her remark [about the Palestinian state], and who are innocent now.”
Interestingly, the hundreds of thousands to which Mr. Zogby referred are not Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but Arab-Americans who are, in his view, being told by both campaigns: “No Arab Need Participate.” Mrs. Clinton does have Arab-American supporters, but they seem to be confined to the area of fund-raising. Mr. Abdulqader said that he had been to the White House four times, had met Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson and Samuel Berger, but that he can’t seem to get a hold of anyone on Team Hillary.
“We formed a committee to support her,” he told The Observer. “We couldn’t access her office or communicate with her.” Mr. Abdulqader is going to send the First Lady a check, which he hopes she cashes. Mr. Zogby has already given her a check on behalf of the Palestinian American Congress, but by the sound of it, he’s thinking about asking for a refund. ” I know the relationship I have with him, and I know the relationship I thought I had with her,” said Mr. Zogby of the Clintons.
But his relationship with her certainly seems to have cooled. On the few occasions when they have seen each other of late, “she’ll say, ‘I owe you a call,’” said Mr. Zogby. “At this point, I just say, ‘I’m waiting.’”