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Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 1999 /20 Kislev, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Hillary needs to learn her place -- WHATEVER LESSONS her 24 years of marriage to Bill have taught Hillary Clinton, political skills are not among them.

Last week, the first lady went to the Middle East for the fourth time since her husband assumed office, and for the first time since she announced her intentions to run for the U.S. Senate from New York. By the time she left, she had succeeded in insulting Israelis -- indeed, Jews everywhere, confusing Palestinians, and embarrassing the White House. And it's not the first time Mrs. Clinton has acquitted herself so poorly on a trip to this most contentious and delicate region.

Her most recent missteps once again involved a trip to the Palestinian West Bank. Last year, Mrs. Clinton attended a meeting of Yasser Arafat's Palestine National Council, where she praised Arafat's leadership and said that establishment of a Palestinian state was necessary for a lasting peace in the region. Her statement infuriated the Israeli government and worried pro-Israel supporters in the United States. But her behavior on this latest trip is in some ways even more unsettling.

Apparently, in efforts to assuage her pro-Israel critics, Mrs. Clinton declined to meet with Arafat on this trip, choosing instead to join Mrs. Arafat in visit a maternal health-care clinic on the West Bank, built with $3.8 million in U.S. aid. But as Mrs. Clinton should have known, even a mothers' clinic can be a political minefield in the Middle East.

Suha Arafat used the occasion to engage in a series of invectives against Israel, accusing the Jewish state of having used chemicals and gas intentionally to pollute the air and water in Gaza and the West Bank, causing increased cancer among women and children there. The charges were eerily reminiscent of the type of medieval blood libels against the Jews, who were often accused of poisoning wells and murdering Christian children.

Other "health professionals" at the clinic event joined in the propaganda-fest, praising Mrs. Clinton for her commitment to a Palestinian state, and making support for statehood a public-health issue for Palestinian mothers and children.

And what did Mrs. Clinton do in response to such obvious political sandbagging? She listened attentively, kissed Mrs. Arafat on the cheek as she departed, and remained mum for an entire day while all hell broke loose around her. Finally, a day after the clinic visit, Mrs. Clinton issued a terse statement saying that inflammatory rhetoric hurts the peace process. Her office also blamed a poor translation of what Mrs. Arafat was saying for Mrs. Clinton's silence, noting that the first lady didn't think Mrs. Arafat's statements contained anything new.

Well, on that account, at least, Hillary got it half right. Palestinian officials regularly and in the most vicious terms attack the Israelis for murdering women and children, so there is nothing new in Mrs. Arafat's rhetoric. What was new was that Mrs. Arafat chose to make her accusations in front of the president of the United States' own wife, thereby implicitly seeking official U.S. assent in the charges.

What should the first lady have done once Mrs. Arafat and the other speakers began attacking Israel? I suppose it would be too much to expect her to have used the occasion to remind her Palestinian hosts of the thousands of Israeli civilians -- men, women, and children -- who have been blown up by Palestinian terrorist bombs in the last 50 years. But she might at least have expressed her disapproval by rejecting Mrs. Arafat's embrace at the conclusion of the ceremony. As the United States most loyal ally in the region, Israel surely deserved as much.

Of course, Mrs. Clinton's best course of action would have been to stay home in the first place. The one thing absolutely not needed at this point in the just-resumed Middle East peace process was a meddling first lady whose chief interest in visiting the region was to promote her own political ambition.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate