Lazio Defends Arafat Handshake

Rep. Rick Lazio today defended shaking hands with Palentinian leader Yasser Arafat, as a photo has raised a new controversy in New York’s contentious Senate race.

The photo, taken in December 1998 and obtained by ABCNEWS from the White House today, shows Lazio shaking hands with Arafat and broadly grinning.

Campaigning today in upstate New York, Lazio said there was a “big difference” between his greeting of Arafat and President Clinton’s handshake with Cuban leader Fidel Castro at the United Nations Millennium Summit last week, an act that was ripped by Lazio and other politicians.

“I would not shake Fidel Castro’s hand,” said Lazio while campaigning in upstate Laningsburgh. “The difference is, this is a person who we’re involved in peace negotiations with.”

The picture was released one day after Lazio sharply criticized both Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, his opponent for New York’s open senate seat, for their own greetings of controversial foreign leaders.

“I think we send the wrong message when we embrace, whether it’s Mrs. Arafat or Fidel Castro,” Lazio said on Friday.

Last fall, Mrs. Clinton sparked a controversy by kissing Arafat’s wife, Suha Arafat, after a speech in the Middle East during which Mrs. Arafat claimed Israelis had used poison gas on Palestinian women and children.

In July, the first lady defended the embrace, saying “some of you may or not have ever been to the Middle East, but a kiss is a handshake” there.

Mrs. Clinton Holds Her Ground

When asked about the photo today, Mrs. Clinton said it was “just another example of Lazio saying one thing and doing another.”

Lazio today accused the White House of interfering in his campaign, saying “It sure sounds like taxpayer money was used once again to further the Clinton campaign.”

Lazio added, “It’s typical of this White House, they’re willing to say or do anything including potentially break the law in order to try and affect this campaign.”

Mrs. Clinton, talking to reporters before attending a church service in Brooklyn, said, “from the White House’s perspective he attacked the President.”

When questioned about a possible political motive in the release of the photo, Mrs. Clinton said, “you’ll have to ask the White House about that.”

The first lady acknowledged that she knew about the photo, concluding, “We need to make sure people in New York have all the information needed to cast an informed vote.”

White House Cites Request

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told ABCNEWS that Lazio was making too much of the timing of the photo’s release.

“He’s protesting a little too much here,” said Lockhart. “We had a request for the picture and we released it. We get requests for photos all the time.”

Asked if President Clinton knew about the photo, Lockhart said, “I’m sure he was aware of it,” but said it was not the president’s decision.

Political observers question the White House’s decision, but indicate there is nothing illegal about releasing the photo.

“It raises very serious questions,” says Scott Harshbarger, President of Common Cause. “You’d think this would be something they’d be very careful about.”

But Charles Lewis, Executive Director of the Center for Public Integrity, says releasing photos is “totally discretionary,” adding “there are no rules, no laws about the use of photos.”

The photo comes as both candidates court the Jewish vote in a tight campaign. Due to her embrace of Suha Arafat and her 1998 call for a Palestinian state, Mrs. Clinton has struggled to gain the backing among New York’s Jewish community that Democrats usually enjoy.

A Quinnipiac University survey released in August shows Mrs. Clinton leading Lazio among the Jewish community 52 percent to 36 percent, a slimmer margin than other Democrats have held while winning state-wide races.

Mrs. Clinton also had to contend with reports in July, which she strongly denied, that she used an anti-Semitic slur in 1974.

—ABCNEWS’ Eileen Murphy, Stephen Yesner, Josh Gerstein and the Associated Press contributed to this report.