Israelis eat up scandal tales, Israel at 50 speaker asserts

Israelis are devouring stories about President Clinton's alleged affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

And Ehud Ya'ari is one of the journalists supplying the grub.

"There is enormous interest in Israel about the effect it has on the president…rather than on Ms. Lewinsky," said Ya'ari, one of Israel's top television commentators who has been in Washington covering the alleged sexcapades.

Not only do scandals make great stories for the camera, he said, but Israelis simply adore Clinton.

"People generally view him as a good friend with a lot of empathy and understanding of Israel," Ya'ari said last week from a hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., where he was temporarily on assignment.

As one of the "Israel at 50" scholars-in-residence, Ya'ari will speak at six public events across the Bay Area this coming week.

In addition to being concerned for Clinton's well-being, Israelis are engrossed in the scandal due to concern about its impact on American policy toward Iraq.

"I've been covering Saddam Lewinsky and Monica Hussein. The stories are getting meshed together."

But Ya'ari doesn't see the fusion of the stories as being along the lines of "Wag The Dog," a new movie in which an American president fakes a war in Albania to turn attention away from his sexual affair.

Ya'ari, instead, sees the Lewinsky debacle as a distraction for Clinton.

"The president, to whatever extent he is crippled, still needs to make a major decision."

The fact that Lewinsky is Jewish hasn't had much of an impact on Israelis, he noted, other than giving the story a "more local slant." In particular, Ya'ari hasn't noticed Israelis rallying behind Lewinsky because she's a Jew.

"People in Israel are accustomed to this phenomenon that the American Jewish community is successful to such an extent that you find them all over the place," he said. "No one is especially surprised that she did or did not sneak into the president's bedroom."

At the same time, Ya'ari isn't impressed with Lewinsky lawyer William Ginsburg's recent statements to the Israeli press that he and his client view Clinton "as very positive toward Israel and the Jews."

Such comments have nothing to do with the case from a legal standpoint, Ya'ari said.

"The general impression is that Ms. Lewinsky has a very talkative lawyer…Why would it be of interest whether Monica felt the president should or shouldn't meet with Arafat?"

Ya'ari, a 52-year-old native Israeli and a journalist for nearly 30 years, has won awards for his coverage of the Egyptian peace process, the Lebanon War and the Gulf War.

In his primary position, he heads the Middle East department for Israeli television's Channel 1. He is also the associate editor of the Middle East section for The Jerusalem Report, a columnist for the Ma'ariv newspaper, and the author or co-author of seven books on Mideast politics.

As for the current crisis over Iraq and U.N. weapons inspections, Ya'ari is downplaying any major risk for Israelis.

A number of political commentators are certain Iraq will respond to a U.S.-led strike by launching missiles at Israel — as it did in the Gulf War. As a result, Israelis have been restocking their supplies of gas masks in case of a biological or chemical attack.

Though Ya'ari favors Israeli preparedness, he asserted that the chances of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein using non-conventional weapons are "below minimal."

During the Gulf War, Ya'ari recalled, "I was saying nightly that he wouldn't use non-conventional weapons. And I'm saying that now."

The journalist maintained Saddam has neither the capability, motivation or incentive to do so.

"If Saddam tries anything — and I stress he doesn't have the real capacity — then he tells the world he was cheating on the United Nations," Ya'ari said.

Saddam is out to get the U.N. sanctions lifted, Ya'ari added, not broadened.

On a related front, Ya'ari said he finds it difficult to ascertain any direct effect of the sex scandal on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But he does contend that Clinton's recent initiatives to restart the peace talks are over for now.

"It is a fact that the president, after intervening personally and quite forcefully…is just a bit distracted now," Ya'ari said. "Certainly I don't expect the president to be back on the scene anytime soon."

Though some commentators have suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pleased with such a disruption, Ya'ari makes the opposite assertion.

"We have to take into account that we are running the risk of an explosion in the territories," he said.

The stalemate has plagued the peace process since Israel's withdrawal from Hebron in early 1997. Such a problem is no boon for the prime minister, Ya'ari said.

"It carries too many risks for everybody."