Sen. Hillary Clinton takes a strongly pro-Israel stance during her Feb. 1, 2007 speech at an AIPAC event in New York.
By Jacob Berkman
NEW YORK, Feb. 4 (JTA) – In her first address to a Jewish group since announcing her candidacy for president, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton tried to convince doubters that she’ll stand by Israel in time of peril.
Speaking Feb. 1 at a dinner for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Northeast region, the New York Democrat — the early front-runner for her party’s presidential nomination — sought to answer several of the questions Jewish voters will be asking of presidential candidates over the next year and a half.
Clinton, 59, was tough on Hamas and Hezbollah, said Iran must not be allowed to become a nuclear power and declared her unequivocal support for the Jewish state.
“I have been, I am now and I always will be proud to stand with all of you as a strong supporter of Israel,” the former first lady said. “We believe that Israelis have the right to live in their country without the constant threat of terrorism, war and rocket fire.”
Though it’s too early to predict who will take the Jewish vote in the 2008 vote, candidates are expected to woo Jewish voters because of their traditionally strong support for Democrats and their deep pockets as political contributors.
Observers say Clinton has made strides as a vocal supporter of Israel during her six years as a New York senator, even though she still may be a tough sell to those who have not forgiven her embrace and kiss with Suha Arafat at a November 1999 event in Gaza — just after Arafat had accused Israel of poisoning Palestinian babies.
Clinton claimed Arafat’s comments hadn’t been translated correctly and she became aware of the allegations only after the event.
Still, her supporters say that those who bring up that incident now — after Clinton has consistently supported legislation in support of Israel — are grasping at straws.
Speaking before a crowd of 1,700 at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City, Clinton described the “unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States based on shared interests and rooted in strength.”
Israel, she said, is a beacon of democracy in a tyrannical neighborhood, and the threats it faces from Hezbollah and Iran are threats not just to Israel but to the entire Middle East, the United States and the rest of the world.
Clinton berated Iran and the Holocaust denial conference in December hosted by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, though she didn’t mention Ahmadinejad’s name.
The conference “was beyond the pale of international discourse and acceptable behavior,” Clinton said, calling it an insult to survivors and Allied solders who bore witness to Nazi atrocities. “To deny the Holocaust places Iran’s leadership in the company of the most despicable bigots and historical revisionists.”
She said the conference only added urgency to the need to deal with Iran.
“U.S. policy must be clear and unequivocal: We cannot, we should not, we must not permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons,” Clinton said. “As I have said for a long time, no option should be taken off the table” in dealing with this threat.
But the United States should first try to engage Iran in dialogue, she said.
“I’m not sure anything positive would come out of it,” Clinton said, but at least such a dialogue would give the United States more information about its adversary, possibly provide some leverage and — if military force ultimately is necessary — show the world that other options had been exhausted first.
In a speech in which she sentimentally recalled several trips to Israel, Clinton also said Hamas and Hezbollah must give up terrorism and accept Israel as a reality. She called on both groups to return three captured Israeli soldiers without condition.
Clinton, who lobbied for the International Red Cross to accept Israel’s Magen David Adom emergency response organization, said she had sent a letter to IRC President Jacob Kellenberger asking the Red Cross to make sure the captured soldiers are safe and are released. Two are being held in Lebanon and one in Gaza.
Clinton also said she would do “an event” next week in the Senate to highlight the anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli rhetoric that remains part of the Palestinian educational curriculum.
Though AIPAC does not support political candidates, some of the group’s supporters said before the speech that they were curious to hear what Clinton had to say.
“I think she is going to answer a lot of the questions,” Gail Levine, a Clinton supporter from Greenwich, Conn., told JTA as she walked into the banquet hall.
Some, like Jules Spotts, a clinical psychologist from New Canaan, Conn., were not yet sold on Clinton. He said he was skeptical because Clinton had been a supporter of the arch-conservative Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1960s.
“That is a long time to go back, but it is a large shift from where she was then to where she is now,” Spotts said before the speech.
After Clinton’s address — many said went on a little too long and lacked her husband’s rhetorical flair — the debate was still open for some.
But it’s much too early to predict how Clinton will fare with Jewish voters in November 2008, said Morris Amitay, a former AIPAC head and co-founder of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
“There hasn’t even been any debate,” he said. “It’s the earliest we have ever had a presidential campaign start. The only thing you can say about the Jewish vote now is that it’s heavily Democratic.”
Still, debate already has begun among political pundits, said Betsy Sheerr, past president of JACPAC, a political action committee that supports congressional candidates who are both pro-Israel and pro-choice.
While Clinton may be leading in polls now, early frontrunners often fade and dark horses can gain momentum later in the race. Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign offers a perfect example of a candidate who seemingly came out of nowhere to win the presidency, Sheerr said.
“At this stage of the game, there are a lot of wait-and-see attitudes and there’s going to be no clear preference in the Jewish community for any of the candidates — except, obviously, their pro-Israel credentials will have to be very solid,” Sheerr said. “I think people are looking to see that they can back a winner.”
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