Why Has Bill Clinton Gone ‘Jimmy Carter’ On Israel?
Former President Bill Clinton — a favorite both in Israel, and amongst pro-Israel supporters here in the US — recently made an abrupt shift in his public statements on Israel, breaking completely from the dominant ‘neo-conservative, inner-beltway’ narrative on US foreign policy in the Middle East.
First, Clinton created an uproar in the Israeli government when he took aim at the Israel Defense Forces, and in particular the extreme elements that make up an increasing number of those serving:
“An increasing number of the young people in the IDF (Israel Defense Force) 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. Sixteen percent of Israelis speak Russian.” […]
Clinton called the Russian immigrant population in Israel the group least interested in 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.”
The former president added that those who have been in Israel the longest and “have the benefit of historical context” were those most supportive of peace in Israel. “They can imagine sharing a future,” he said.
Clinton added that he feared this growing extremist element within the IDF would make it very difficult for Israel to deal with the half-million illegal settlers in the West Bank — something essential for any future peace agreement with the Palestinians.
As one might expect, this statement provoked a sharp rebuttal from Israel’s far-right Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, whose core supporters happen to be these same extremist — often Russian — settlers. He accused Clinton of meddling in Israel’s internal affairs. Benjamin Netanyahu — trying to downplay the controversy — stated he “regretted” Clinton’s statement. MK Lia Shemtov (Yisrael Beitenu), chairperson of the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, actually went on the offensive. Shemtov accused Clinton of having once provided Palestinian terrorists with rifles that lead to the deaths of Russian Jewish settlers, and demanded that he apologize.
So it was quite a shock to learn that after the fall-out from his first statement, Bill Clinton lobbed an even larger bomb shell at Israel. This time he blamed much of the world’s terrorism on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict:
“It will take about half the impetus in the whole world — not just the region, the whole world — for terror away,” he told an audience of Egyptian businessmen from the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt. “It would have more impact by far than anything else that could be done.”
Clinton — as both Vice President Joe Biden and General David Petraeus had done last March — linked the necessity for a Middle East peace agreement with the strategic interests of the United States of America (proclaiming it to be the very cornerstone of our battle against global terrorism). This is a HUGE rhetorical shift for the former President.
The former President’s comments should not be taken lightly. Not only is his wife, Hillary Clinton, serving as Secretary of State, he is a seasoned politician who devoted much energy and time to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict during his eight year term. He understands better than anyone the political ramifications in America for criticizing Israel publicly. It’s considered a faux pas for any American politician to suggest that the strategic interests of the United States are not identical to Israel’s, much less that Israeli policies are risking American lives.
Hillary Clinton, while serving as US Senator from New York and while running as a 2008 Presidential Candidate, never once dared to stray from the AIPAC-boilerplate narrative with regards to Israel. Last March, however, after Israel announced a resumption of illegal settlement expansions, Secretary of State Clinton rebuked Netanyahu in a telephone call . She was reported to have told him that “this action had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process and in America’s interests.” But after intense pressure from the Israel Lobby, the Administration backed away completely from this line of messaging. So why is Bill Clinton all of a sudden exorcising it from the grave?
The Obama Administration knows too well that each side of this conflict literally hangs onto every word uttered by an American President, past or present, but especially when an ex-President happens to be married to the current Secretary of State.
Haaretz reported that the Obama Administration is “incensed” with the Israeli government for not agreeing to extend the settlement moratorium in exchange for “unprecedented U.S. political and security assistance”:
Senior American officials said they were frustrated by Netanyahu’s conduct in the affair. “We’re not buying the excuse of political difficulties anymore,” a senior U.S. official told his Israeli counterpart.
“The Americans said Netanyahu’s conduct is humiliating the president,” said a senior European diplomat who met with senior U.S. officials in New York last week.
Madame Secretary Clinton and Middle East Envoy George J. Mitchell are still pressing Israel to extend its now-lapsed moratorium. So was Bill Clinton — who just polled as the most popular politician in America — tasked with laying the groundwork for a potential US policy shift? His statements would obviously be reported world-wide and generate the appropriate controversy, thus guaranteeing the attention of both American and Israeli politicians and press — all without directly implicating the current Democratic Administration just before midterm elections.
One thing is for certain: it will be impossible for Bill Clinton (and extremely difficult for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) to walk back his statement — blaming the absence of a Middle East peace agreement as the main impetus for world terrorism. It will also be impossible for the Obama Administration (or even the voices of the Israel Lobby, for that matter) to convince anybody that Israel is not 100% responsible for intentionally sabotaging the current peace talks.
According to Bill Clinton’s statement, this would logically leave the US and Israel at a strategic impasse — that being Israeli intransigence in forging peace remains the major cause of worldwide terrorism, thereby threatening the lives of US citizens and US troops.
Which begs the obvious question: how should the United States respond when an ally’s intransigence poses a grave threat to US national security?