Mrs. Clinton Seeks to Fortify Jewish Vote

ADAM NAGOURNEY - The New York Times - October 6, 2000

Hillary Rodham Clinton moved to fortify her standing with Jewish voters yesterday, saying that she had made a mistake in attending a ceremony with Suha Arafat on the West Bank, and urging that the administration release classified documents in the case of Jonathan Pollard, the convicted Israeli spy seeking clemency.

Mrs. Clinton, speaking at a synagogue on Manhattan's Upper East Side, also said that she would not meet with Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, though she declined to "second guess" the statement by Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democratic candidate for vice president, that he was willing to sit down with Mr. Farrakhan, who has been criticized for making anti-Semitic statements.

Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic candidate for Senate, who has had some difficult moments courting Jewish support over the past year, said it would "not be useful for me" to sit down with Mr. Farrakhan, a moment of unusual directness for the first lady that drew laughter from her audience.

Mrs. Clinton made her remarks during a 50-minute forum with reporters from The Jewish Week newspaper at the Park East Synagogue, which was packed with spectators and Secret Service agents wearing yarmulkes.

Mrs. Clinton's opponent, Rick A. Lazio, also appeared at a similar forum last month. At Mr. Lazio's request, his question-and-answer session was not open to the press.

Mrs. Clinton's appearance at the Orthodox synagogue on East 68th Street underlined the extent to which her visit to the West Bank last year formed voter attitudes about her that were not, as she observed yesterday, to her benefit. On the trip, Mrs. Clinton was photographed kissing the wife of Yasir Arafat, after Mrs. Arafat, speaking in Arabic, accused the Israeli government of employing toxic gas against Palestinian women and children. Mrs. Clinton condemned Mrs. Arafat hours later, after receiving, she said, an official translation of her remarks.

When Mrs. Clinton was asked by a Jewish Week questioner whether she would have done anything differently with the benefit of hindsight, she responded briskly. "I wouldn't have gone that's the first thing," she said. Mrs. Clinton said the encounter, which some of her advisers view as the low point of her campaign, led to "a misimpression about my strong feelings and support of Israel."

"I think it was a lesson that I certainly learned, because even though I was there in a capacity that I will no longer have, I want people to know that as a senator from New York, I will look out and defend the interests of New Yorkers," she said.

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Lazio have both been under pressure from some Jewish leaders to call on President Clinton to grant clemency to Mr. Pollard, who is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit espionage. Both candidates have said that they would need to review classified documents involved in the case to judge whether the punishment was excessive.

Mrs. Clinton urged yesterday that the documents be released to the public after they are scrubbed of classified information, saying she had concerns that the punishment might be too severe.

Asked if she had shared those feelings with Mr. Clinton, the first lady, who generally declines to respond to questions about conversations with the president, responded, "I have made my views known, yes."

In responding to questions about Mr. Farrakhan, the first lady did not condemn him for anti-Semitic statements, as politicians typically do, presumably out of concern that such words might be used against Mr. Lieberman. Instead, she said that she would not meet with him "because I don't find that would be a very useful thing for me to do.

"Joe has a different potential assignment: He's going to be, I hope, the vice president of the United States," she said. "And I have learned being in the White House and the administration, there are things that one does when the whole nation, the entire country, is your responsibility."

Last night, Mrs. Clinton was a speaker at a fund-raising dinner for the Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay rights lobbying organization.

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