Who's to blame for the continued failure of the Middle East peace process? Former President Bill Clinton said today that it is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- whose government moved the goalposts upon taking power, and whose rise represents a key reason there has been no Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Clinton, in a roundtable with bloggers today on the sidelines of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, gave an extensive recounting of the deterioration in the Middle East peace process since he pressed both parties to agree to a final settlement at Camp David in 2000. He said there are two main reasons for the lack of a comprehensive peace today: the reluctance of the Netanyahu administration to accept the terms of the Camp David deal and a demographic shift in Israel that is making the Israeli public less amenable to peace.
"The two great tragedies in modern Middle Eastern politics, which make you wonder if God wants Middle East peace or not, were [Yitzhak] Rabin's assassination and [Ariel] Sharon's stroke," Clinton said.
Sharon had decided he needed to build a new centrist coalition, so he created the Kadima party and gained the support of leaders like Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert. He was working toward a consensus for a peace deal before he fell ill, Clinton said. But that effort was scuttled when the Likud party returned to power.
"The Israelis always wanted two things that once it turned out they had, it didn't seem so appealing to Mr. Netanyahu. They wanted to believe they had a partner for peace in a Palestinian government, and there's no question -- and the Netanyahu government has said -- that this is the finest Palestinian government they've ever had in the West Bank," Clinton said.
"[Palestinian leaders] have explicitly said on more than one occasion that if [Netanyahu] put up the deal that was offered to them before -- my deal -- that they would take it," Clinton said, referring to the 2000 Camp David deal that Yasser Arafat rejected.
But the Israeli government has drifted a long way from the Ehud Barak-led government that came so close to peace in 2000, Clinton said, and any new negotiations with the Netanyahu government are now on starkly different terms -- terms that the Palestinians are unlikely to accept.
"For reasons that even after all these years I still don't know for sure, Arafat turned down the deal I put together that Barak accepted," he said. "But they also had an Israeli government that was willing to give them East Jerusalem as the capital of the new state of Palestine."
Israel also wants a normalization of relations with its Arab neighbors to accompany a peace deal. Clinton said that the Saudi-inspired Arab Peace Initiative put forth in 2002 represented an answer to that Israeli demand.
"The King of Saudi Arabia started lining up all the Arab countries to say to the Israelis, ‘if you work it out with the Palestinians ... we will give you immediately not only recognition but a political, economic, and security partnership,'" Clinton said. "This is huge.... It's a heck of a deal."
The Netanyahu government has received all of the assurances previous Israeli governments said they wanted but now won't accept those terms to make peace, Clinton said.
"Now that they have those things, they don't seem so important to this current Israeli government, partly because it's a different country," said Clinton. "In the interim, you've had all these immigrants coming in from the former Soviet Union, and they have no history in Israel proper, so the traditional claims of the Palestinians have less weight with them."
Clinton then repeated his assertions made at last year's conference that Israeli society can be divided into demographic groups that have various levels of enthusiasm for making peace.
"The most pro-peace Israelis are the Arabs; second the Sabras, the Jewish Israelis that were born there; third, the Ashkenazi of long-standing, the European Jews who came there around the time of Israel's founding," Clinton said. "The most anti-peace are the ultra-religious, who believe they're supposed to keep Judea and Samaria, and the settler groups, and what you might call the territorialists, the people who just showed up lately and they're not encumbered by the historical record."
Clinton affirmed that the United States should veto the Palestinian resolution at the U.N. Security Council for member-state status, because the Israelis need security guarantees before agreeing to the creation of a Palestinian state. But the Netanyahu government has moved away from the consensus for peace, making a final status agreement more difficult, Clinton said.
"That's what happened. Every American needs to know this. That's how we got to where we are," Clinton said. "The real cynics believe that the Netanyahu's government's continued call for negotiations over borders and such means that he's just not going to give up the West Bank."
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Top Israeli officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Soviet dissident turned Israeli parliamentarian Natan Sharansky, reacted with disappointment Wednesday to comments by former President Bill Clinton casting Israel's Russian immigrant population as an obstacle to the Middle East peace process. Sharansky even accused Clinton of inappropriately trafficking in ethnic stereotypes about Israelis.
"If the reports of President Clinton's comments are accurate, I am particularly disappointed by the president's casual use of inappropriate stereotypes about Israelis, dividing their views on peace based on ethnic origins. I must add that these are uncharacteristic comments from a man who has always been a sensitive and thoughtful listener and conversation partner," said Sharansky, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
As reported first by The Cable, Clinton identified the Russian community as the ethnic group inside Israel least amenable to a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians. The former president, speaking in a roundtable with reporters Monday in New York, also suggested that because Russian and settlers' offspring comprised an increasing proportion of the Israel Defense Forces, forcibly removing settlers from the West Bank as part of a peace deal might be more difficult.
"An increasing number of the young people in the IDF are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem," Clinton said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also reacted strongly Wednesday, calling Clinton's comments "distressing," according to the Israeli news wire Ynet.
"As a friend of Israel, Clinton should know that the immigrants from the former Soviet Union have contributed and are making a great contribution to the advancement, development and strengthening of the IDF and the State of Israel. Only a strong Israel can establish solid and safe peace," Netanyahu reportedly said.
Sharansky also denied that he participated in a conversation with Clinton years ago where he used his Russian identity as a reason to oppose a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians.
On Monday, Clinton recalled a conversation, telling reporters that Sharansky said, "I can't vote for this, I'm Russian... I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you."
Sharanksy responded Wednesday: "I was never at Camp David and never had the opportunity to discuss the negotiations there with President Clinton. It may be that he had in mind our conversations at Wye Plantation years before, where I expressed my serious doubts, given the dictatorial nature of the PA regime, whether Mr. Arafat would be willing to bring freedom to his people, an essential element of a sustainable peace," said Sharansky. "History has shown that these concerns were justified."
The Cable reported that Clinton was referring to Sharansky's opposition to the 2000 Camp David accords but, after reviewing the transcript, it was clear that Clinton was referring to discussions he had with Sharansky during negotiations over the 1998 Wye River Memorandum.
Yisrael Beitenu, an Israeli political party whose supporters are made up of mostly Russian immigrants, called Clinton's comments "crude generalizations." Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, one of the leaders of the party, said that nobody should attempt to divide Israeli groups in such a way.
"The immigrants of Russia contributed to the development of the state of Israel in every field, including science, culture, sports, economy and defense. This year, the entire country is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Russian aliyah. This shows that the Israeli people are united," the Jerusalem Post reported her saying.
Not all Israeli leaders were upset. Coalition Chairman and Russian immigrant Zeev Elken praised Clinton's remarks. "I am proud of former President Clinton's distinctions. He made the right distinction that the Russian speakers and settlers have been carrying the Zionism banner in the State of Israel in recent years," he told Ynet.
Clinton's staff did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
President Obama travels to New York Wednesday afternoon to attend the U.N. General Assembly and participate in a host of side meetings with the world leaders convening in Manhattan for this week's festivities.
"This year's visit to the U.N. General Assembly comes as we have successfully and dramatically changed our course at the United Nations. We've ended needless American isolation," said U.S. Representative Susan Rice on a conference call with reporters Monday. "We've worked to repair what were some badly frayed relationships and scrapped outdated positions. And in the process, we've built a strong basis for cooperation that advances our security."
Obama's first order of business will be to deliver remarks at the Millennium Development Goals summit at the United Nations. Obama is expected to unveil several aspects of the White House's overall review of global development policy, called the Presidential Study Directive on Global Development (PSD-7). That long awaited document has been completed according to the administration but is not expected to be publicly released at all beyond Obama's remarks and a statement coming later Wednesday.
Obama's remarks "will focus on what the United States is doing in pursuit of achieving the Millennium Development Goals and focus on some of the key initiatives of our development policy writ large," said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes on the conference call.
Obama will address the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday morning, talking about broader American foreign policy goals and the activities of his administration in its first 20 months. The president will concentrate "on issues that are of great concern to the American people, such as our efforts to restart the global economy, to combat al Qaeda, to advance the cause of nonproliferation, and to pursue Middle East peace," Rhodes said.
After his speech, Obama will hold a bilateral meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao before attending a lunch hosted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He will meet briefly on the side of that lunch with Ban and Joseph Deiss, the president of the General Assembly.
Later Thursday, Obama meets with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan. "The President is looking forward to visiting Japan, of course, in November, and thinks that this is one of our most important alliances in the world," Rhodes said. Asia observers are watching for news on the escalating China-Japan argument over a Chinese boat captain detained in Japanese waters.
Thursday afternoon, Obama will head over to the Clinton Global Initiative in midtown Manhattan to give introductory remarks for his wife Michelle, who will be delivering a speech there. Thursday evening, Obama hosts a reception at the Natural History Museum.
On Friday, Obama starts off with bilateral meetings with the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and new Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who apparently took time out of his schedule to attend a Shakira concert. A meeting with the interim Kyrgyz president, Roza Otunbayeva, is scheduled for late Friday
Friday lunch will be the setting for Obama's meeting with leaders from all ten ASEAN member countries, where the South China Sea dispute with China and upcoming Burmese elections are expected to be discussed.
After that, Obama attends a high-level meeting on Sudan hosted by Ban, and participants include the chairman of the African Union, Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, and the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir.
"The President decided to participate in this event, which was actually at one point originally intended as a ministerial, because this could not be a more critical time in the life of Sudan and also in the life of international efforts to ensure that these referenda go off on time and peacefully," Samantha Power, the NSC's senior director for multilateral engagement, told reporters.
The months before the planned referendum in January on dividing Sudan into two countries are critical, said Power, who also noted that Obama would be pushing both sides to implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and work faster toward preparing for the voting.
"The No. 1 message is with regard to the CPA and the need for rapid implementation. The parties are behind schedule. You're aware of that. Everybody is aware of that," she said, adding that Obama will also speak about the dire humanitarian situation in Darfur.
Rice said Obama will reinforce both incentives and penalties for both sides in order to encourage them to act in good faith.
"We want to make the upside opportunity clear and well understood. At the same time, we've also been clear that if they fail to follow through, that there will be -- as we have always said in the context of our policy -- consequences," she said. "Those might take the form of unilateral and/or multilateral, and we've got a number that are potentially at our disposal."
Russian immigrants to Israel have emerged as a central obstacle to achieving a Middle East peace deal, according to former President Bill Clinton. He voiced fears that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which increasingly consists of soldiers hailing from this community, might not be fully willing to oppose Israeli settlers as a result.
In a roundtable with reporters during his Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York, Clinton made his most extensive remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is spearheading.
"An increasing number of the young people in the IDF are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem," Clinton said. "It's a different Israel. 16 percent of Israelis speak Russian."
According to Clinton, the Russian immigrant population in Israel is the group least interested in striking a peace deal with the Palestinians. "They've just got there, it's their country, they've made a commitment to the future there," Clinton said. "They can't imagine any historical or other claims that would justify dividing it."
To illustrate his view on the Russian immigrant community, Clinton related a conversation he had with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident turned Israeli parliamentarian, who he said was the only Israeli minister to reject the comprehensive peace agreement Clinton proposed at the Camp David Summit in 2000. The proposal was eventually rejected by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
"I said, ‘Natan, what is the deal [about not supporting the peace deal],'" Clinton recalled. "He said, ‘I can't vote for this, I'm Russian... I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you.'"
Clinton responded, "Don't give me this, you came here from a jail cell. It's a lot bigger than your jail cell."
Clinton used the anecdote to explain the Russian immigrant population's attitude toward a land-for- peace deal with the Palestinians. "[Sharansky] was nice about it, a lot of them aren't," Clinton said.
Clinton then ranked the Israeli sub-national groups in order of his perception of their willingness to accept a peace deal. The "most pro-peace Jewish Israelis" are the Sabras, who he described as native-born Israelis whose roots there date back millennia, because they have the benefit of historical context. "They can imagine sharing a future."
Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Europe and have been in Israel for one or more generations are the next most supportive of a peace deal, Clinton said.
The "swing voters" are what Clinton called the "Moroccans": North African Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1970s. He described them as right-of-center citizens who nevertheless want normal, stable lives.
"When they think peace is possible, they vote peace. When they think it's not, they vote for the toughest guys on the block," Clinton said.
Regarding the settlers, Clinton said that their numbers had grown so much since 2000 that their longstanding opposition to giving up their homes in exchange for peace might be more entrenched and therefore a bigger challenge than before.
"In 2000, you could get 97 percent of the settlers on 3 percent of the land. Today, you have to give almost 6 percent of the land to get 80 percent of the settlers," said Clinton. "There were 7,000 settlers in Gaza and it took 55,000 Israeli forces people to move. Somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 settlers will have to be moved out of the West Bank."
Clinton spoke extensively about the positives and negatives he sees in the ongoing direct peace talks launched by the Obama administration.
"I'd say their chances are at least 50-50," Clinton said optimistically.
The Palestinians' internal divisions, specifically the lack of Palestinian control over the Gaza Strip, present another problem, but one that a peace deal could help solve, he suggested.
"That makes it more difficult for Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu to make a deal and to wonder what a deal means," he said. But if there's a deal on the table, that would create enough pressure for an election in Gaza that President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party would win, Clinton argued.
"I believe if there were an election in Gaza today, Fatah would win because of the greater prosperity and the greater security produced under Abbas and Fayyad," Clinton said, adding that Fatah only lost in Gaza elections because of intra-party faction fighting that saw many candidates run against others in their own party.
There are some factors that point to improved conditions for making a peace deal as compared to 2000, said Clinton. He pointed to the fact that two-thirds of Israelis trust Netanyahu to make a peace deal, more than when Ehud Barak was negotiating, according to Clinton. Also, he said that he has faith that the current Palestinian Authority leadership is serious about reaching a settlement.
"They won't do what Arafat did, they won't get up to the deal and lose their nerve. They know what the future looks like."
In the long term, Israelis will face increased pressures, Clinton said. Because of the high Palestinian birth rate, Israel will become a Palestinian-majority state sometime in the next 30 years, if it does not give up the West Bank.
"Then they will have to decide either to be a Jewish state or a democracy, but they cannot be both. They don't want to face that. They don't want to face not only the international legitimacy question but also the internal identity crisis."
Moreover, Clinton said, Hamas militants will soon have military technology that will allow their relatively low-damage attacks on Israeli population centers to have greater accuracy and lethality.
"It's just a matter of time before the rockets have a GPS system on ‘em and a few rockets will kill a whole lot of people. Netanyahu understands that," said Clinton.
He also said that Arab leaders were on board with Middle East peace now more than ever, partly because they now have Iran as a boogeyman to deflect attention from their unpopular policies.
"They think they've got a real enemy in Iran now, so they don't need a faux enemy in Israel to keep people in the street directed at somebody besides them."
Before pontificating on the peace process, Clinton seemed to realize he was stepping into some sensitive territory, but decided to proceed nonetheless.
"I wouldn't say too much about this if Hillary weren't Secretary of State and in charge of these negotiations, so I'm darned sure not going to say too much now," he said, before going in depth on the issue for over 10 minutes.
Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.