Suha’s Charges

Politicians and Pundits Miss the Point

'Blood Libel!' the tabloid screams, pronouncing the death of a candidacy that hasn't even been declared yet. Pundits insist that Hillary Clinton cannot win a U.S. Senate seat without the bulk of New York's Jewish vote-as much as 15 percent of the electorate. And she lost that vote last week in Ramallah, they say, when she failed immediately to denounce Suha Arafat's charges that Israel has poisoned the West Bank. Though the so-called Jewish vote is more divided than such assertions acknowledge, the Daily News already quoted one unnamed political analyst describing a photo of Clinton greeting Suha Arafat with a kiss as "the Willie Horton ad of the campaign."

In this horse-race tallying that passes for political analysis, most New York dailies neglected one significant question: Is Suha Arafat right?

Instead the tabs merely trumpeted the outrage of Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak whose office released a statement that Arafat's remarks have "no relation to reality," and of Morton Klein, leader of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, who invoked the "blood libel" (the age-old accusation that Jews murder gentile children) and condemned Arafat's "Nazi-like statements." But according to Israeli and Palestinian experts on the environment, Arafat's basic charge-that three decades of occupation dangerously polluted Palestinian air, land, and water-is indisputable. "As an occupier, Israel did not do much to take care of the environment," says Gershon Baskin, the Israeli codirector of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, the 10-year-old public-policy think tank in Jerusalem. "There was essentially zero investment in infrastructure for waste treatment and the West Bank has basically been treated as a huge garbage dump." Indeed, the problems are so widely acknowledged that the 1993 Oslo agreement, and other peace process documents, contain clauses spelling out ecological measures that both sides must take.

Meanwhile, LAW: The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, based in Jerusalem, has documented various ongoing cases of ecological abuse, ranging from Israel's expropriation of the declared green area, Jabel Abu Ghneim, a West Bank forest, for Jewish settlement building, to the dumping of settlement sewage onto Palestinian agricultural lands. LAW cites some 160 Israeli factories operating in the West Bank without controls on waste disposal or air pollution, and notes that ongoing land confiscation and uprooting of trees continue the desertification of Palestinian territories. As for the Gaza Strip, sewage still runs through its streets. And water, which Israel pumps from the West Bank and Golan Heights, remains as big an obstacle to final peace agreements as the status of Jerusalem. "Why the big fuss about Suha Arafat saying something about the environment?" asks LAW's Hasib Nashibi. "It's a well-known story."

The fuss, of course, had entirely to do with the other first lady in attendance. Although Hillary Clinton insisted she was not on a campaign visit, but representing her husband in supporting the peace process, before her plane landed she had already dropped down the rabbit hole into the bizarre arena of New York Israel politics, where, more than in Israel itself, every gesture is layered with symbolic import.

There are actually three New York Jewish votes, and Clinton doesn't seem to have quite figured out which to pander to. The Hasidic and Orthodox, politically conservative wing, which accounts for about a quarter of the Jewish electorate-and the most likely to get exercised over Arafat's remarks-remains firmly behind Mayor Giuliani (despite the police shooting of Gidone Busch in Boro Park in August). The hardcore liberals, which make up about a third and support Palestinian rights, will most certainly back Clinton. It's that nearly 50 percent chunk in between that Clinton and Giuliani are vying for: It can swing. Eighty-five percent of New York's Jews voted for President Clinton in 1996, but some 70 percent supported Giuliani in his reelection bid.

Having already blurted out a seemingly innocent statement supporting Palestinian statehood-a position shared by a majority of Israeli and American Jews-Clinton backpedaled toward the right in July when she took it upon herself to contravene U.S. policy and declare Jerusalem the eternal, undivided capital of Israel.

The fuss over Suha Arafat was stirred, too, by her exaggerated language. "Our people have been subjected to the daily intensive use of poisonous gas by the Israeli forces, which has led to an increase in cancer cases among women and children," Arafat asserted. Whether the extensive use of tear gas during the intifada-and its occasional use more recently-has contributed to cancer has not been conclusively studied, says Hadas Ziv, program director of Israel's Physicians for Human Rights. But PHR did document deaths caused by tear gas, especially among the elderly and children, and tracked a correlation between tear gas and miscarriages. More important, says Ziv, "We Israelis do have serious responsibilities for policies in the territories that have had effects on infant mortality and children's malnutrition. One should not exaggerate; one should speak about Israel's true responsibilities. But the ones shouting 'blood libel' are the ones responsible for the policies that are having the terrible effects in the territories that we're seeing now."

 
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