From New York to Jerusalem

It might seem odd that a foreign leader charged with conducting complicated statecraft in his own country should involve himself in state-level politics in America. Or that anyone should take notice when the mayor of a foreign town of 700,000 lavishes political favors on the mayor of a U.S. city of almost seven million people. But when the state in question is New York and the foreign country is Israel, the usual laws of political gravity no longer apply. Ehud Barak is the left-leaning prime minister of Israel. Ehud Olmert is the Likudnik mayor of the Jerusalem municipality. And the two Ehuds--never the best of friends--have clashed over a Senate race taking place half a world away.

The dispute erupted when, during a trip to the United States in November 1999, Barak spoke enthusiastically about Bill and Hillary Clinton's dedication to the Mideast peace process. His comments reportedly infuriated the staff of Rudolph Giuliani because they were seen to be an implicit endorsement of Hillary Clinton's bid for the U.S. Senate. In an apparent response, Olmert, a longtime friend of Giuliani's, announced that he would be speaking on the New York mayor's behalf at some fundraisers and political events during a couple of visits to the United States. Although neither Israeli has actually endorsed either Senate candidate, their involvement underscores the importance that both Clinton and Giuliani place on their relationships with Israel and, implicitly, Jewish voters.

Is the first lady weak in her support for the Jewish state? Her critics leveled accusations to that effect in the wake of her joint appearance in Ramallah, West Bank, with Suha Arafat, wife of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. As Mrs. Clinton looked on, Mrs. Arafat baselessly accused the Israelis of poisoning the Palestinian water supply and using gas against Palestinian women and children. After the speech, the first lady embraced her hostess warmly. It is not clear whether Clinton missed the simultaneous translation of that part of the speech into English or heard it and, since she was traveling in her official capacity as first lady, felt the need to restrain herself from responding until the following day. Whatever the case, Israel supporters in this country lambasted Clinton vociferously for her passivity on the occasion.

Clinton's supporters, as well as the Israeli consul general in New York, insist that with his enthusiastic demonstration of support for the president and first lady, Barak was merely trying to demonstrate in the wake of the Ramallah incident that he felt Hillary was nevertheless a strong Israel supporter. "Barak was only trying to take off some of the diplomatic pressure on [Clinton] and recognize the good that she's done," says Jack Bendheim, a close Clinton ally and campaign fundraiser as well as the president of the dovish Israel Policy Forum. "He had no intention of getting involved with New York politics." Olmert similarly denies that he intended to become entangled with the race and explains that his sole concern is the interests of his city, declaring, "There is no one in the United States that I trust more as far as Jerusalem's status is concerned than Rudolph Giuliani." (Perhaps it's not an "endorsement," but it's pretty friendly language.)

The candidates' respective alignments with the two Ehuds represent strong ideological ties, not just election-time pragmatism. Giuliani has taken many positions close to the hearts of conservative Israel supporters. He feels that Jerusalem should remain the eternal capital of the Jewish people, "undivided, forever"; he favors moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem--a controversial gesture of American legitimation of Israel's sovereignty over the city from which President Clinton has held back; and he urges clemency for Jonathan Pollard, the American sentenced to life imprisonment for spying for Israel.

Hillary Clinton has seemed more equivocal. She has spoken out strongly in favor of a Palestinian state but against its unilateral declaration. Last July she wrote a letter to the Orthodox Union, an umbrella group of Orthodox congregations, expressing her conviction that Jerusalem should remain undivided under Israeli jurisdiction. But during her Middle East trip last autumn, the day after the Suha Arafat debacle, she made comments that called into question her stance on the city. She expresses no position on moving the embassy or on the Pollard case.

With their divergent political stances, Clinton and Giuliani appeal to different subsets of Jewish voters. The first lady's political base consists largely of liberals from the Upper West Side, suburbanite women, and moderates on Israeli issues. The mayor has received broad Jewish support during past campaigns--but with more liberally inclined Jews forced to make a tough voting decision, he'll find his most ardent support among Orthodox Jews who are hawkish on the peace process.

While American Jews traditionally vote Democrat (75 percent, according to some estimates), an active and vocal minority back the GOP. In fact, the breach in American Jewry's views about the peace process often follows a denominational breakdown, with the Reform and conservative wings favoring the peace process and traditional Orthodoxy emphasizing the need for security and taking the process slowly.

Clearly, there is an affinity between Clinton and Barak that appeals to liberal Jewish voters, and a similar affinity between Giuliani and Olmert that appeals to conservative ones. If one reads carefully between the lines of speeches that the candidates have made before Jewish groups, it becomes clear that although their rhetoric is often similar--like most politicians in Israel, they rely heavily on the formulation "peace and security"--they really have sharply divergent views of the relationship between those two goals. Giuliani views security as the necessary grease that enables the social machine to work; he compares his work in making New York a safer city to the Israeli government's challenge of fighting terrorism. "At the core of the peace process," said the mayor, "there must be a feeling of basic security."

Clinton, on the other hand, has reached out in many ways to Palestinians and other Arabs. She spoke at a refugee camp in Gaza, and she hosted a White House celebration on Eid Al-Fitr (the holiday ending Ramadan) in January of last year. If her speech at a memorial conference for the assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is any indication, she believes peace is the route to security, not the other way round: "Peace in the Middle East is not only a moral imperative, but the smartest strategic choice to ensure security for the children of Israel."

Ultimately, Clinton and Giuliani represent clashing views of human nature. Giuliani identifies strongly with the Israelis in their struggle against the Goliath of Arab nations hemming them in from all sides. The Arabs are the Other--suspect at best, acutely dangerous at worst. Clinton, however, eschews Otherness, stressing instead the commonalities between Jew and Arab. If only a formal peace can be negotiated and put into place, she seems to feel, its fruits will manifest themselves and old grudges will give way to the new order.

The political stances that pit Clinton and Barak against Giuliani and Olmert merely parallel the natural alignments of the major political parties in both countries. During the years of Likud opposition, for example, there were aggressive efforts to win Republican support in Congress. With the 1994 Newt Gingrich revolution, a lot of new representatives without much experience in Middle East policy came to power admiring Benjamin Netanyahu and his tough attitude regarding the Arabs. These sympathies deepened when Netanyahu, elected prime minister in 1996, pursued a vigorous Republican-style policy of privatization and deregulation. Liberal Democrats in this country, meanwhile, retained their affinities for Israel's Labor Party, which still in principle stands for social democracy. These partisan connections have had a visible practical effect: During the 1999 elections, Barak used the services of the consulting team that helped elect Bill Clinton, while Netanyahu employed a Republican pollster and consultant.

The candidates' political sympathies in the Middle East could very well influence the rhetoric of New York's Senate race. A massive foreign aid package from the United States would be necessary to execute the military redeployments and modernization that would be part of a peace agreement. Political scientist Steven L. Spiegel of the University of California at Los Angeles speculates that Clinton will put Giuliani on the defensive by charging that only a Democratic Congress will appropriate these sums of money for foreign aid. Her charges may not be wholly unfounded: Last fall the Republican Congress, wanting to punish President Clinton, blocked passage of the funds that the president had promised at the Wye River talks. They could do the same with a new agreement.

At some level, of course, the amount of attention the candidates are according Mideast policy--if not some of the opinions they've professed--reflect New York realpolitik. While Jews constitute only 12 to 15 percent of the Empire State's voters, they contribute disproportionately to political campaigns. And it is conventionally estimated that a Democrat running for statewide office needs two-thirds of the Jewish vote to win. Thus while the mayor and the first lady will be competing for all kinds of voters--black and white, male and female, upscale and downscale, upstate and downstate, uptown and downtown, urban and suburban--whose ballotbox decisions will be driven primarily by in-state considerations, a deciding factor in a close race could well be the candidates' respective stances on various issues pertaining to the Middle East. Which means what the two Ehuds say could mean a lot. ยค