The Israel Factor: Hillary on the Rise

In the fifth round of Haaretz's ranking of U.S. presidential hopefuls, we learn that the way a candidate is perceived will vary depending on whom he - or she - is up against.

Last week a Jewish professional who is involved in the politics of the Democratic Party recalled a story about a meeting in Jerusalem between the party's former national chairman, Terry McAuliffe, and former prime minister Ariel Sharon. It was during the days of the intifada, and Sharon, the host, did not conceal his opinion from McAuliffe. "The Democratic Party has always supported us," said the prime minister, referring to a trend dating back to the days of the state's establishment and its immediate recognition by president Harry Truman. However, continued Sharon, I have to be fair with you. President George Bush the Republican is more supportive of Israel than any other president has been.

McAuliffe has just written a new book, "What a Party!" in which, among other things, he relates how Yasser Arafat caressed his leg during the course of an official dinner. But the book's main interest stems from McAuliffe's criticism of the party's presidential candidate in 2004, Senator John Kerry, in his failed campaign against Bush.

McAuliffe is one of the people closest to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and was among the most politically influential people during the period of the former as president. When Sharon praised Bush to him, therefore, he was not without a comeback. There is one politician, he said to Sharon, who is more popular in Israel than either Bush or you, and his name is Bill Clinton. According to the story, Sharon replied: "Don't you meddle in Israeli politics."

This is a tale worth recalling with the publication of the fifth index of "The Israeli Factor," a ranking of the potential candidates for the U.S. presidency according to their attitude toward Israel and the problems facing it. One of the interesting and surprising findings in it: The panel of ranking experts prefers Senator Hillary Clinton (New York) to Republican Senator John McCain (Arizona) for president. Why is this surprising? Because consistently, in the four previous measures as well as in the present one, McCain gets higher average grades than Clinton. On the regular question at the end of the index, "To what extent is the candidate good for Israel?" the experts this time gave 7.13 to McCain as compared to 6.63 to Clinton. In the previous survey, McCain received 7.25 as compared to 7 for Clinton, and on the one before that, it was 7.63 for McCain and 7 for Clinton.

Clinton over McCain

So what has changed? In the current round, unlike in previous rounds, we added a question that measures pairs of candidates head to head (as opposed to the general question that aims at giving an overall grade to each of about 20 candidates). Each pair stands for a possible race between a Republican candidate and a Democratic candidate, and the most intriguing of all is of course this race, Clinton versus McCain. They are, after all, the two leading candidates at the moment in the races in their respective parties.

In each such pair we chose one of the candidates, at random, and gave him the grade of 3 out of 5. Then we asked the panel to give the other candidate a higher, lower or identical grade. The outcome left no room for doubt. We gave McCain the arbitrary grade of 3 and Clinton received an average grade of 3.25. But more important: Three members of the panel gave Clinton a grade higher than 3, two gave the candidates identical grades and only two preferred McCain to Clinton. The panel, in general, prefers Clinton.

Professor Camil Fuchs, who analyzes the data for us, was asked to provide an explanation. How is it possible that McCain consistently received a higher grade, even though the panel prefers Clinton in a two-headed race?

Fuchs was unflustered. "That's how it is," he said. According to him, only when you confront someone with an unambiguous choice is his real preference revealed. While in the overall ranking the panelists think about the candidate in and of himself and give him a grade without relating to possible competitors, when they are presented with a pair, they choose. This time they chose Clinton. Which would certainly not surprise McAuliffe.

McCain was a member of one pair that we wanted to examine in the framework of a comparison between two Republicans competing with each other in the party primaries. In fact, we wanted to find out why the panel consistently gives former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani a higher grade than it does McCain. We asked the team 11 questions relating to the two candidates and we asked them to give a grade of 1 to 5 on every item. For example: "To what extent do you think the candidate will pressure Israel to leave the Golan Heights in return for an agreement with Syria?" In answer to this question, McCain received the grade of 2.86 and Giuliani 1.86.

There are two outstanding elements in this comparison. The one is that the panel, with almost no exceptions, assumes that McCain will apply more pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights. It was the same when we asked whether the candidate would demand of Israel that it evacuate outposts, even if it receives nothing in return from the Palestinian side (McCain 2.63, Giuliani 1.38).

The second, more outstanding and important element as it is also expressed in the general voting by the panel: Giuliani is perceived as having a stronger emotional connection to Israel, 4.13, than McCain, 2.75.

Perhaps, in fact, this is also the reason the panel prefers Clinton to McCain, at least in the head-to-head race. When we asked the question about the "emotional connection" with respect to all of the candidates on the first index a few months ago, the panel ranked Clinton, with 7, above McCain, who received the grade of 6.88.

Incidentally, in the head-to-head race between Clinton and Giuliani, the panel prefers the Republican, with 4.12 for Giuliani as compared to an arbitrary 3 for Clinton. Six of panel's members believe that Giuliani is preferable to Clinton. McCain's inferior position exists not only versus Clinton, but also in a race against another Democrat, Al Gore, about whom it is not even clear that he intends to run. In the case of Gore, as in the case of Clinton, four members of the panel believe that he is preferable to McCain, but unlike with Clinton, three believe that he is less good and only one believes that the two are equal.

What's causing Rice to fall?

In a week of yet another, among many, visits to Israel by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the panel was also asked about her. Rice, as they had already noted in the past, started out with a rather high rating, and since then has dropped a bit more each month. In her case, this is not a problem of familiarity, as for example in the case of former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack (Democrat) or Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (Republican), who have only expressed few opinions that touch upon Israel or the Middle East.

However, Rice has never expressed any opinions that cause worry among the panelists, as opposed to, for example, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. If so, what explains the fact that Rice's grade has also been dropping consistently (this month, for the first time, it has gone up, but only by a little) and especially why her ranking as compared to other candidates is going down? From ninth place, Rice's position dropped to 12th, 15th and 16th. This month she has climbed back to 14th place, because the number of candidates has also gone down. Again, we presented the panel with a series of questions that could explain the drop in their estimation and we asked them to reply with a number from 1 to 5 (1 shows that the issue had no influence and 5 shows that it had a great deal of influence on the change in the grade).

Various panelists gave different answers about what's bothering them, so there is no alternative but to assume that Rice is just a miserable victim of circumstances. The panelists who are worried by the possibility of American pressure on the Palestinian issue lowered her grade because they believe that some of her statements show she is over-committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Others, who really have no diplomatic problem with Rice or with a certain amount of American pressure, lowered her grade because their estimation of President Bush is very low and her loyalty to his policy causes them to doubt her intelligence.

On only two issues is there relative agreement among the panelists. The first is that most of the panel's members are not convinced that the opinions expressed by Rice in public are her true opinions. They note that Rice's ideological roots are in the "realist" school of the first president Bush. The other is that the panel members are not "punishing" Rice for her staunch opposition to negotiations between Israel and Syria. Most of them understand her motives, which look reasonable to them. This not to say, of course, that they believe Israel should surrender to this opposition.