Dr. Saeb Erekat relates that when Bill Clinton visited Israel in 2004 in honor of Shimon Peres' 80th birthday, he had a chance to ask the former U.S. president why he blamed Yasser Arafat for the failure of the Camp David talks. Clinton, Erekat says, said Ehud Barak told him that if he blamed the Palestinians, it would help him (Barak) win the elections.
The smell of elections hovered over the July 2000 Camp David talks. Not only - and not even primarily - the smell of elections in Israel. The only journalist invited to interview President Clinton during the talks was from Newsday. Clinton did not invite the correspondent to tell him about the important talks on Middle East peace. He wanted to tell the paper's Jewish readers why they could not manage without his wife in the Senate.
This was the beginning of Clinton's campaign to recover from the Monica Lewinsky affair. In the early Clinton years, Hillary acquired a reputation as a real dove. In the spring of 1998, when Arafat threatened Benjamin Netanyahu with a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, Hillary Clinton told Israeli and Palestinian youth via a video broadcast that "it will be in the long-term interests of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state, and for it to be a state that is responsible for its citizens' well-being, a state that has responsibility for providing education and health care and economic opportunity to its citizens."
The remarks immediately upset the Jewish establishment and prompted the White House spokesman to explain that they do not represent the president's position. This awful statement haunted her in her campaign against Republican candidate Rick Lazio, who said a Palestinian state would "undermine regional stability." He also accused her of having contact with Muslim immigrant organizations, some of whose activists were known Hamas supporters.
Clinton rejected the accusations and announced her opposition to a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. In an interview with a New York Jewish weekly, Clinton welcomed Congress' decision to halt aid to the Palestinians if they were to unilaterally declare a state. Overnight, the establishment of a Palestinian state responsible for its citizens' well-being ceased being important. On the other hand, the separation fence eating into Palestinian areas became justified, even vital. Clinton also did not hesitate to challenge Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who had reservations about Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, and protested the Palestinian reaction to "a legitimate visit to a holy site."
Hillary Clinton has a soft spot for Israel. Her connection goes back to the governor's mansion in Arkansas. It was there that she learned about Etgar, an educational program that trains parents to impart young children with skills. Clinton adopted the Hebrew University program and imported it to the United States. To this day, her picture is hanging on the Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus.
Clinton also managed to win over some Hassidic courts, which are not known for being enthusiastic supporters of female leaders, not to mention left-wing women. She paid a courtesy call to Rebbetzin Halberstam, the wife of the Admor of Bobov, the leader of one of the largest Hassidic sects in North America. During the 2000 Senate campaign, the Skverer Rebbe, Rabbi David Twersky, who lives in New Square, New York, visited the White House. The American press reported that Hillary Clinton promised the revered Hassidic leader that she would lighten the punishment of four of his followers convicted of fraud. Clinton won a solid majority in New Square.
For her friends on the Jewish left, senator Clinton stirred longings for First Lady Hillary. Given her flip-flopping attitude toward the Israeli-Arab conflict, they regard the possibility of First Man Bill with a mixture of joy and fear. The closer she got to launching her campaign, the more Clinton distanced herself from the democratic left and positioned herself in the center. Her friends on the Jewish left accept this with understanding, even if they are not too pleased about it.
Like most of the Jewish community, liberal Jews support Clinton's positions on domestic issues, especially social matters (such as workers' rights, abortion, stem cell research and health insurance). Clinton's positions on these matters are considered anchored in solid values.
According to public opinion surveys by Jewish organizations, most community members are more concerned by domestic issues than by the candidate's "Israeli-Arab" record. For them, choosing between Clinton and the Republican candidate is a no-brainer.
By all indications, Hillary is avoiding the oldest conflict in the Middle East like the plague. In any case, the next president will be very occupied by the Iraqi mess and the Iranian quagmire, as well as the more pressing matter of North Korea.
Olmert is learning
After reading Ehud Olmert's remarks at the ceremony presenting the Council for the Welfare of the Child's yearbook, there is nothing left to do but decide which option would be worse - that our prime minister is disconnected from reality, a liar or just a local hack.
At the event three weeks ago, the prime minister devoted many minutes to the children of East Jerusalem. "In recent years, there has been a revolution in East Jerusalem in Arab education," he said. "There is no other place in Israel where, relative to the size of the student body, more money was invested, more facilities were built and more means were provided to improve education."
Olmert demonstrated an impressive knowledge of detail. He told guests about the construction of "grand facilities" for schoolchildren in Beit Hanina, Issawiyeh and Abu Tor, and prided himself on the investment of "huge sums in the unique holistic program that we, when I was in the Jerusalem municipality, invested in nurturing education in East Jerusalem." The state and the municipality brought about "a revolution" in education not only in relative terms, but also in absolute terms. "I'm very proud of it," he concluded. "It was one of the areas where I invested my greatest efforts."
About two months earlier, the Knesset Education Committee held a discussion on education in East Jerusalem. "Few documents from the Knesset Research and Information Center have been as deadly as the report we received on education in East Jerusalem," committee chair Michael Melchior (Labor) stated as the meeting began. "The severity of the situation seems even worse than I thought, and I knew the situation was bad. Based on the Research and Information Center's document, the students in East Jerusalem seem to be on the verge of - and I say this with all due caution - abandonment."
The report of the research center, a very objective entity, determined that from 1995-2005 - Olmert was Jerusalem's mayor from 1993-2003 - the shortage of classrooms in East Jerusalem increased by more than 290 percent. As a result, the municipal education systems could not absorb all the Arab students. The research department noted that according to reports by the nonprofit organization Ir Amim, more than 10,000 East Jerusalem children are not registered with the education authorities, and it is not entirely clear whether they are studying at all.
And what does Jerusalem's municipal comptroller say about Olmert's "grand facilities"? Her 2003-2004 report tells of decrepit educational facilities, residential structures that were transformed into schools without being legally rezoned. In 2000, the state comptroller found that some Arab sector schools never underwent safety inspections.
If it's not the facilities, then could matriculation exam eligibility perhaps be the source of the prime minister's pride? According to the Research and Information Center, East Jerusalem has the lowest eligibility rate in Israel (among cities with more than 10,000 people), standing at just 13.8 percent. For the sake of comparison, the matriculation exam eligibility rate among Jerusalem's Jewish sector was 54 percent in the 2004-2005 school year.
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