Leaders feel Clinton scapegoated Jews in his handling of Rich affair

WASHINGTON — Former President Clinton's claim that Jewish pressure contributed to his highly controversial decision to pardon Marc Rich has left some Jewish leaders feeling scapegoated.

In an opinion piece in Sunday's New York Times, Clinton defended the pardon of Rich and his associate Pincus Green, saying that "Israeli officials of both major political parties and leaders of Jewish communities in America and Europe urged the pardon of Mr. Rich."

He made similar comments in an off-camera interview with Geraldo Rivera for CNBC's "Rivera Live." Rivera said Clinton told him that "Israel did influence me profoundly."

Jewish leaders in America and Israel are mixed on whether Clinton is setting up the Jewish community or whether they indeed influenced the pardon decision.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said it "seems inappropriate" for Clinton to cite Israeli lobbying as an important factor in his decision to pardon Rich after first citing legal grounds for the pardon.

"Israel is largely a scapegoat in this matter," said an official with a Jewish organization in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity. "No one seriously believes the Rich pardon had anything to do with foreign policy or the peace process."

Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said Clinton must take responsibility for his decision.

"To refer to the fact that he got character references from Jews is distasteful and gives the wrong impression," Baum said. "The emphasis he gave to the intervention of the Jews is regrettable, because it makes it sounds like he did it in response to that."

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, has been critical of Jewish lobbying on Rich's behalf, charging in his own op-ed last week that the Jewish community was "bought" and that leaders failed an "important moral test." On Tuesday, Yoffie said Jewish leaders should not be reacting harshly to Clinton's comments, but instead should do some introspection.

"This is not a particularly wise and advantageous course for us to be taking," Yoffie said of Jewish officials' negative reactions to Clinton.

"He responded to what we said, and now we are saying, 'Don't scapegoat us,'" Yoffie said. "Under other circumstances, the fact that the president of the United States was listening to the pleas of the Jewish leaders is something we'd take pride in."

Rich received his pardon during the waning hours of the Clinton presidency. He had been indicted on 51 counts of tax evasion, racketeering and violating trade sanctions with Iran, but fled to Switzerland in 1983 before standing trial.

After fleeing the United States, Rich became a major benefactor of Jewish charitable organizations and Israeli universities and hospitals.

Jewish officials in the United States, Israel and Europe lobbied the White House in a mostly underground campaign on Rich's behalf. Many of those advocating the pardon had benefited from Rich's largesse.

Among the latest developments in the case:

*Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak requested Rich's freedom in both phone conversations with Clinton and letters. Clinton said in his New York Times column that he felt Rich had aided the Middle East peace process by sponsoring health and education programs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

*Shabtai Shavit, who headed Israel's Mossad spy agency from 1989 to 1996, said Rich had helped the Mossad search for missing Israeli soldiers and had helped evacuate Jews from "enemy countries," the New York Times reported.

*Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami wrote in a letter that Rich had created a fund in the mid-1980s for Egypt to compensate the families of Israelis killed in a terrorist attack in the Sinai Desert. This helped mend the relationship between the two countries, Ben-Ami wrote.

*Several prominent Clinton administration officials active in the Mideast peace process said Clinton never consulted them about the Rich pardon. They include former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Special Middle East coordinator Dennis Ross, former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and current Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet.

*Ross and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said they were first approached about Rich in 1995 by Israeli officials seeking clearance for Rich to travel without threat of arrest and extradition to the United States. The New York Times reported that former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said Rich had proposed raising billions of dollars to help economic development in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but needed to travel to accomplish the task.

While members of the Jewish community wrote letters on Rich's behalf, Baum said the letters must be examined to see whether they are pardon requests or merely character references. While he sees no problem in submitting character references, Baum said, requesting the pardon would require an assessment of Rich's crimes and their effect.

"It conveys the impression that Jews, because they were recipients of philanthropic contributions, were willing to intervene, even when there are charges that could harm the rest of society," Baum said.

Jewish leaders are upset about how the community may be perceived, either because of Clinton's mistake or their own. But they are not concerned that the Rich affair will affect U.S.-Israeli relations or views of the Jewish community in the long run.

"I do not think that this will have a long term impact on U.S.-Israel relations, but the attempt to shift the onus onto Israel is unfortunate," Hoenlein said in Jerusalem.

Said Baum: "We've withstood worse things than this."