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.