Orthodox Jews Here Cool To Hillary

Gregg Birnbaum - NY Post - December 15, 1999

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday received a polite - but lukewarm - reception during her first appearance before a Jewish group since her botched trip to the West Bank, several participants said.

During a 45-minute closed-door session with the Orthodox Union, Clinton faced repeated questions from one member on her handling of Yasser Arafat's wife claims last month that Israel was poisoning Palestinian women and children.

Clinton gave a detailed response, saying she had not initially understood Suha Arafat's charges and later strongly condemned them once their meaning was clear.

"She was treated respectfully, but there wasn't any great enthusiasm," said one person who attended the gathering of about 50 Orthodox Union members.

The participant, noting Mayor Giuliani had recently addressed the same group, added, "There was visceral enthusiasm when the mayor was here. Mrs. Clinton didn't have a lot of supporters in the room, and she didn't leave here with one more."

Another participant said the first lady handled herself well, showing knowledge of the issues, commitment to Israel - and even near-tears emotion when speaking about an American Jewish killed in an Arab terror attack.

"The image of 'big, bad Hillary' was replaced with 'reasonable Hillary,'" the person said. "She came across as real. But she's not going to get the votes of most people there."

Orthodox Union leaders asked those attending the invitation-only gathering to treat the first lady with respect, one source said.

Speaking briefly to reporters afterward, Clinton called it a "productive, useful discussion."

Clinton grabbed the group's attention when she backed linking U.S. aid to the Palestinians to an end to anti-Israel activities and propaganda, participants said.

Clinton said she raised the issue of anti-Israel textbooks being used in Palestinian schools with Palestinian leaders during her trip to Israel.

"We have to condition our aid and participation in the peace process on compliance and this should be monitored," Clinton said, according to an Orthodox Union official who took notes.

"Rooting out terrorist activity and propaganda are both very important to be constantly raised as a condition for our continued support," she added.

Clinton disappointed the group when she took no position on whether convicted spy Jonathan Pollard should be freed, as the Orthodox Union wants.

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