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National Perspective | POLITICS

Hug Is Back to Haunt First Lady

October 19, 2000|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Starting this weekend, thousands of Jewish voters in New York will receive a Republican mailer with a photograph of Hillary Rodham Clinton hugging Suha Arafat, the wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The message: Jews cannot trust Clinton to protect the security of Israel.

"Mrs. Clinton tries to paint herself as a friend of Israel, but her actions prove otherwise," said Dan Allen, spokesman for the New York State Republican Committee, which is producing the brochure. "She needs to be called on these things, and that's what this mailer will accomplish."

Although both presidential candidates have set a national tone for bipartisanship in reacting to the Middle Eastern crisis, the rivals in New York's tight Senate race are a glaring exception. Clinton, who strongly rebuts GOP attacks on her support for Israel, and Republican Rep. Rick Lazio are battling fiercely for any advantage the volatile issue might offer them.

This is New York, after all, where Jewish voters not only make up 12% of the electorate but tend to turn out in much greater numbers than the rest of the population. Pollsters say there may be 300,000 undecided Jewish voters in the Senate race, mostly in the New York City area, and the candidate who wins them over could gain a crucial political edge in the campaign's final weeks.

"Everybody panders to Jewish voters in New York state elections," said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. "But this race is unprecedented because it's being driven by international events. The candidates are trying to out-Israel each other, making Israel a litmus test as never before."

It's tricky business, because the international situation is so fluid and unpredictable. Until recently, for example, Lazio and Clinton both voiced support for the peace process, which now seems so fragile.

"The Middle East issue is like a blade without a handle, because nobody knows how to pick it up," said Fred Siegel, political science professor at Cooper Union College. The recent bloodshed there, he added, has had a politically disorienting effect on hawks and doves.

Both candidates have been relying on familiar strategies to guide them through uncharted waters. Lazio reminds voters of Clinton's earlier comments backing Palestinian statehood. Clinton generally ignores his attacks and emphasizes her support for Israel. She stresses that her embrace of Suha Arafat was a mistake, and she has since backed away from her endorsement of a separate state for Palestinians.

Clinton's approach seems to be working. A Quinnipiac Poll released Wednesday showed her retaining a 50% to 43% lead over Lazio, with her support including 60% of the heavily Democratic Jewish vote. That's a big jump from the 50% she was frozen at for much of the year. Although Clinton is encouraged, she's bracing for a rough finish.

"We have three weeks to go and I expect the campaign to get meaner and uglier and less substantive as it goes," said Clinton spokeswoman Ann Lewis.

Many Jewish swing voters--in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island--may have reluctantly agreed to back Clinton, but recent events could force them to reconsider, said Samuel G. Freedman, author of "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry."

"In every close election, there's an emotional trigger, something which forces undecided voters to go one way or another," he said. "That picture of her hugging Mrs. Arafat could become the trigger that moves a great many voters."

The controversy surfaced during Clinton's visit to the Middle East last fall, when she was silent during a virulently anti-Israeli speech by Suha Arafat. The first lady, who then embraced her, said subsequently she did not get an accurate translation of the speech until later.

Meanwhile, Lazio has his own photo to explain. Last month, after he blasted President Clinton for shaking Fidel Castro's hand at a U.N. gathering, the White House released a photo of Lazio happily gripping Yasser Arafat's hand during a 1998 visit to the Middle East.

Neither candidate can take Jewish votes for granted. Lazio has voted consistently in support of Israel, but his ties to New York's Jewish community do not go much beyond that. As for Clinton, she can only hope that her evolution on Israeli issues--a movement away from longtime allies in the Palestinian and Arab American community--will be believed by enough voters.

During the last six months, she has made a concerted effort to woo Conservative and Orthodox Jewish leaders in Brooklyn and other neighborhoods. In what could be a key development, she seems likely to win the endorsements of New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a politically influential leader in Brooklyn, and other figures. Still, doubts linger about her credibility.

"Theoretically, Hillary Clinton should be able to say, 'I'm married to Bill Clinton, who most Israelis think is the best friend they ever had,' " said J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Forward, a Jewish weekly newspaper in New York. "But the news hasn't reached Brooklyn. She's still got work to do."

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