Bill Clinton’s Comments about Netanyahu Cause a Stir

Last week former president Bill Clinton made headlines after comments he made about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York were published in Foreign Policy. According to Josh Rogin, Clinton blames Netanyahu for the failed Israel-Palestine peace process because his government “moved the goalposts upon taking power” and his rise “represents a key reason there has been no Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.”

Clinton noted that after the Israelis’ two main goals were achieved — the installment of a satisfactory “partner” in Palestinian government and the normalization of relations with Arab neighbors —  the Netanyahu government became disinterested in progressing with negotiations:

The Israelis always wanted two things that once it turned out they had, it didn’t seem so appealing to Mr. Netanyahu…Now that they have those things, they don’t seem so important to this current Israeli government, partly because it’s a different country…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.

Despite Clinton’s acknowledgement of how Netanyahu’s hardline policies have made the negotiation process unattractive for the Palestinians, he affirmed the expected U.S. veto on the Palestinian statehood bid to the UN.

His words were nevertheless received coldly by Netanyahu who repeated the same sentiment in two interviews following his speech to the UN General Assembly. On NBC’s Meet the Press Netanyahu said blame lies with the Palestinians:

You know, I regretfully and respectfully disagree with former President Clinton. He should know, more than anyone else, that in the peace conference he presided in at Camp David in 2000 with [Yasir] Arafat and former Prime Minister [Ehud] Barak, it was the Palestinian side who walked away from his own parameters. And in 2008, President Bush can tell you how the Palestinian side led by President Abbas walked away, just would not close in on another prime minister’s suggestions.

In the two-and-a-half years since then, anybody conversant with the facts knows that I made these offers again and again, called for two states for two peoples, froze the settlements — nobody did that, ever — for nearly a year. They didn’t come. They don’t want to come. And they go around to the U.N. I disagree with that.

Netanyahu’s explanation omits many important facts, such as how Israeli settlements have continued at an alarming rate during his rule. Indeed, the settlement freeze he is referring to was only a partial one in the West Bank and was not enforced in Jerusalem which Netanyahu claims as Israel’s “undivided capital” despite UN and Palestinian consensus for it to be divided fairly.

Clinton’s critique was received angrily by Likudniks in Israel and according to Haaretz, Netanyahu was so mad “that he asked his aides to request that the White House issue a statement distancing itself from Clinton’s statements.”

The Jerusalem Post reported on Tuesday that a “US embassy spokesperson” said on Monday that “President Clinton is a private citizen” and “his comments reflect his private views.” Last year a similar reaction by the embassy was quoted after Clinton was criticized by the Israelis for commenting on the nature of Russian immigrant Israeli settlers.

But the White House refused to comment directly about the event after being pressed during a briefing led by Deputy Spokesperson Mark C. Toner on Monday:

QUESTION: — issues? Any reaction or comments or remarks made by former President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative basically placing all the blame for the collapse of the peace process on Benjamin Netanyahu?

MR. TONER: I’m not going to respond to that except to say that we’ve got, right now, from Friday a Quartet statement out there publicly. We’ve seen –

QUESTION: I’m not asking (inaudible). I’m saying –

MR. TONER: Let me finish (inaudible). Let me finish – that the Israelis have come out favorably for – the Palestinian Authority is examining it, looking at it closely. It provides an alternative path back to negotiations. That’s the way we believe we should be moving. That’s the direction we believe we should be moving.

QUESTION: But there is no reaction to the former President’s comments on – placing all the blame on Mr. Netanyahu, is there?

MR. TONER: Again, both sides need to look at the challenges that they’re facing and work to get back to the negotiating table. I think everyone is in agreement that that’s how we’re going to resolve this.

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Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is an Iranian-born journalist based in Washington, DC.

10 Comments

  1. Those “important facts” you mention aside, Netanyahu is to some extent correct. Indeed, on the biggest issue of all, he is absolutley right. The Palestinians have not and never will accept a Jewish state in Palestine. If they ever accept a two-state solution, it will be for tactical reasons only. This is a fact that pro-peace Israelis and American Jews don’t like to admit. But it’s there and you have to deal with it.

  2. Jon, it’s never been offered. The Jordan river valley has never been offered to the Palestinians. How can a state exist with foreigner only roads cutting it into a plaid work? The question is whether there will be any recognition of the Arabs. The Arab League HAS agreed to the contentious “Jewish State,” but many Zionist deny the Palestinians even exist. As people raised on “one person/one vote” as a people reared on “might makes right” aka “American Exceptionalism” or “Manifest Destiny” the real challenge is for us and Israelis to acknowledge the rights of indigenous peoples. If we care about genocides, we should say, “never again.”

  3. I basically agree that it’s never been offered. If it were, the Palestinians might accept, but only (in my view) as a tactical maneuver. They want all of Palestine back. And why not? It was their land for a 1,000 years.

  4. Nathan, thanks for the link. I love Julia Bacha. I’ve written many times (including in comments on this site), that had the Palestinians adopted the tactics of Ghandi and Martin Luther King from the beginning and stayed that course, they might long ago have won the battle for world and (more importantly) U.S. opinion. But nonviolence remains a minority sentiment among both Palestinians and Israelis, and I don’t think it will ever gain enough adherents to make a difference. I hope I’m wrong.

    Bacha makes the point that media attention needs to be focused on these nonviolent movements. But the mainstream media in the U.S. and the U.K. are supportive of Israel, and have no desire to publicize nonviolence on the part of Palestinians.

    Let’s remember that Ghandi won in the end because the British were exhausted and broke and couldn’t hold on to India any longer. Israel is far from being exhausted or broke. And the Civil Rights movement triumphed in the American South because the weight of the American state was eventually brought to bear on the side of the protestors. In Palestine, the weight of the American state is all on the side of Israel; the nonviolent Palestinian protestors do not receive even token sympathy from America, much less any practical assistance.

    Perhaps one day sense will prevail and a peaceful solution will be arranged by the peoples over the heads of their governments. But I doubt it. Any such solution must be predicated on a united, democratic Palestine in which Arab and Jew live together. No sign that either side, and especially the Israelis, will ever agree to that. A Jewish apartheid state in control of two-thirds of Palestine, with a Palestinian majority and a sea of hostile Arabs on three sides, will seek to perpetuate itself. And it will, eventually, fail, with possibly horrific consequences.

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