Posted on November 22, 1999 in Washington Watch

The New York tabloid press and a handful of pro-Likud hawks had a field day attacking First Lady Hillary Clinton last week.

At issue was Mrs. Clinton’s response (or initial lack of response) to comments made, in her presence, by Palestinian First Lady Suha Arafat during a visit to Ramallah to inaugurate a U.S.-funded women and children’s health project in the West Bank.

Mrs. Clinton’s short visit to Ramallah was a last minute addition to her three-day Middle East visit that was spent primarily in Israel and Jordan. The step was an effort to appease Palestinians’ and Arab Americans who had criticized Mrs. Clinton’s initial itinerary for ignoring Palestinians.

During her quick stop in Ramallah, Mrs. Clinton was preceded at the podium by a number of Palestinian officials who praised her 1998 statement in support of Palestinian statehood. Mrs. Arafat, not wanting to put Mrs. Clinton in a difficult position, did not mention the statehood remarks in her introduction of the U.S. First Lady. Instead she focused her comments on the impact that the Israeli occupation has had on health issues. Specifically she noted “the severe damage caused by the daily use of poisonous gas of the Israeli forces in the past years which was has led to an increase of cancer cases among Palestinian women and children.”

Mrs. Arafat also made reference to “widespread disease” caused by Israel in polluting much of the Palestinians’ water supply.

The U.S. press noted that Mrs. Clinton sat “stone faced” during Mrs. Arafat’s remarks and then “embraced and kissed her” at the event’s end.

It was only later in the day, as negative reaction began to develop back in the United States, that Mrs. Clinton’s office issued a terse statement: “What was said today in Ramallah is an example of why the President at Oslo urged the parties to refrain from making inflammatory charges or engaging in excessive rhetoric and to deal with any issues at the negotiating table.”

The next day in Jordan Mrs. Clinton, herself, spoke out: “Everyone who supports this [peace] effort should refrain from inflammatory and baseless accusations…that could in any way adversely affect what the parties are attempting to achieve…we do not believe [these comments] are helpful to the peace process.”

While all of this was playing out in the Middle East, the New York press was screaming in outrage against both first ladies. Leading the charge, of course, was the New York Post, the most notorious of the anti-Arab and anti-Clinton New York papers.

On the first day the Post front page featured a full page photo of Mrs. Clinton kissing Suha Arafat with the headline “Shame on Hillary.” The sub-head read “First Lady silent in face of ‘blood libel’ on Israel.” Inside, the Post featured two articles and an editorial. The “blood libel” charge was made by in opinion piece written by David Bar-Illan. An inflammatory article on the day’s events was written by Uri Dan. The entire issue was capped by an editorial “Mrs. Clinton and the Blood Libel.”

What the Post didn’t tell its readers was that Bar-Illan was the official spokesperson for the Netanyahu government and Uri Dan, during the 1970s and 1980s served as press aide and spokesperson for Ariel Sharon.

During the next few days other papers and commentators entered the fray whipping up a rhetorical frenzy against Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Arafat. Sidney Zion, for example, in the New York Daily News commented that the event in Ramallah showed that “Israel is up against pathological people.”

Another New York Post editorial writer described Mrs. Arafat’s remarks as “one the most blatantly anti-Semitic speeches of our time.” A prominent television commentator suggested that instead of kissing Mrs. Arafat, Mrs. Clinton “should have just slugged Mrs. Arafat across the face!”

In an editorial, The Washington Times, chided the First Lady for “hugging and kissing” Mrs. Arafat. The day before the same paper featured a cartoon depicting Mrs. Clinton kissing a “skeleton of death” named “Suha Arafat.”

The press-induced frenzy was itself, a shameful excess–more so than the comments they were criticizing. Only one New York writer had the courage to offer a criticism. Lars Eric Nelson, speaking to mainstream, and liberal Jewish readers who were disturbed by the hysteria, attacked the Post’s excessiveness and its motives.

The charge “blood libel” he noted had a very specific meaning for Jews. The term referred to the outrageous medieval claim that Jews used the blood of Christian children to make Matzo at Passover. A New York Jewish Congressman interviewed by Nelson observed “to use the phrase ‘blood libel’ just inflames things.” Another Jewish leader noted “we live in a culture where terminology is being abused.”

The purpose of the campaign, Nelson noted, was to inflame–or to use the more relevant term “to incite”–against Mrs. Clinton and the Palestinians and the peace process itself.

The same New York Post that led this charge is the same New York Post that sought to inflame Jewish passions last spring against my son, Joseph, (than an aide at the U.S. Department of State) and Salam Al Marayati, who had been nominated for a post on a congressional commission to study terrorism. Both were called anti-Israel extremists. At the time, the same cast of New York writers sought not only to have Joe and Salam removed from their positions but charged that Mrs. Clinton would have to answer for their having been appointed in the first place.

While this irresponsible New York press claims to speak for Jewish opinion, in fact it only represents the most extreme and anti-peace currents of Jewish thought.

With regard to Mrs. Arafat’s comments, it must be noted that while they were inaccurate, they were not baseless. Her changes, while imprecisely stated should have been seriously discussed. The campaign of hysteria was designed to shut off all such discussion. It is a fact that Israel’s repeated and excessive use of CS gas during the Intifada resulted in some deaths and other painful reactions among those who fell victim to its use. The canisters of this gas are clearly marked “must not be fired directly at person, or death or injury may result.” There were numerous wire-photos of Israelis firing the gas directly at Palestinian demonstrators, sometimes at extremely close range.

And during the Intifada, there were daily reports of pregnant women miscarrying as a result of inhalation of CS.

While CS is commonly referred to as tear gas, the Executive Director of Physicians for Human Rights, Dr. Jonathan Fine noted “There’s a tremendous under appreciation of the dangers of tear gas; in my opinion it’s a misnomer to call the stuff tear gas. It’s really poison gas.”

And while we still do not know the long-term effects of CS gas inhalation–we do know that the incidence of miscarriage was higher than normal and we also know that there is, today, in the Occupied Territories a higher then normal rate of cancer.

This requires closer examination–inaccurate statements and hysterical responses will only make it more difficult to develop such a study.

What was also extremely troubling about this entire affair was the failure of the Palestinian Authority to respond to or provide any information to assist others in the formulation of a response. Despite repeated efforts to secure an exact text of Mrs. Arafat’s comments or documentation to substantiate her remarks–the Palestinian side has still failed to produce any such information. Thus any effort to argue or support the Palestinian case has been, once again, hampered by official refusal to understand the importance of information and public opinion in the United States.

Finally, a comment about Mrs. Clinton and her trip. From the outset the trip was ill conceived. As a potential candidate for the U.S. Senate from New York, Mrs. Clinton’s visit to the Middle East was bound to be controversial. While she maintained that it was an official visit, in her capacity as First Lady, the New York press and her critics in New York laid in waiting.

Her itinerary, as designed, was entirely political–especially the visit to East Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The West Bank stop, a last minute addition, was not fully advanced or planned. As a result, Mrs. Clinton and her Palestinian hosts were placed in a complicated and compromised position.

Mrs. Clinton has made a significant effort to reach out to New York’s sizeable Jewish voting bloc. Polls show her not doing as well as she ought to do with this key voting group. Some suggest that this visit to the Middle East was supposed to help her with Jewish voters. Meanwhile Mrs. Clinton has made o overtures whatsoever to New York’s 300,000 Arab Americans–a group whose support can be helpful in a close race.

The poorly planned visit and the hysteria it spawned helped her with neither group. While Mrs. Clinton’s behavior was diplomatically correct and quite moderate given the hysterical attacks she was responding to–the entire episode left everyone disappointed and disturbed.

Serious political analysts are now questioning whether it is possible for the First Lady to negotiate her way through the minefields of New York politics. This last visit to the Middle East has only reinforced their doubts.

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