Russian immigrants to Israel are one of the main obstacles to reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians, former US President Bill Clinton said Tuesday to reporters in New York, according to Foreign Policy magazine.
Clinton expressed his fear that the large numbers of Russian immigrants and settlers serving in the IDF will make it hard for the army to confront the settlers if this should be required. An increasing number of IDF soldiers are children of Russians and settlers, who are those most strongly opposed to dividing the land, the former president said. He noted this was a serious problem, and that Israel had changed – some 16% of Israelis now speak Russian.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday evening said the remarks attributed to the former US president were 'distressing.'
"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."
Clinton said the Russian immigrants constitute the group least interested in a peace agreement with the Palestinians. They have only just arrived, see the State as their own and are committed to its future, he explained, and they cannot imagine any historical claim which justifies division of the land.
According to the report, Clinton related a conversation he had had with Natan Sharansky who was the only minister opposed to the peace proposal at Camp David in the year 2000. Clinton said Sharansky told him he couldn't support the proposal "because I'm Russian."
Clinton with Arafat and Barak in Camp David (Photo: AP)
Sharansky said he had come from one of the largest states in the world to one of the smallest, and couldn’t conceive of dividing it further. Clinton added that Sharansky had been "nice about it," but that many others were not.
Sharansky: I wasn't at Camp David
Sharansky's associates were surprised by Clinton's remarks. The Jewish Agency chairman said, "I wasn't even at Camp David. Clinton may have gotten confused with our conversations three years earlier, when I expressed my doubts over the dictatorial nature of the Palestinian Authority regime."
Sharansky added that "if the report is accurate, it's disappointing that the president should use inappropriate stereotypes when talking about Israelis and their political opinion. It's important to note that these remarks do not reflect the man I know, who was always attentive, sensitive, calculated and respectful."
The Israelis most interested in peace, according to Clinton, are the native-born Israelis ("Sabras") who are able to imagine a common future with the Palestinians. The Ashkenazi Jews who came to Israel from Europe are the second group most supportive of a peace agreement.
According to the report, Clinton said the most undecided were the "Moroccans" – the Jews from North Africa who came to Israel in the seventies. These immigrants have a mostly center-right political orientation, the former president said, and want a stable, tranquil life. When they think peace is possible, they vote in favor, he said, but when they think it is impossible, they vote for the strongest man in the neighborhood.
Clinton also said that in light of the high Palestinian birthrate, Israel would have a Palestinian majority within the next 30 years if it doesn't give up the West Bank. Then it would be faced with the choice of being a Jewish state or a democratic state, but it would be unable to be both.
He noted that Arab states support the peace agreement now more than ever, and that this is an opportunity that must be taken.
'Clinton dividing people of Israel'
The Yisrael Beiteinu party responded by saying, "Clinton's words show he does not know the great contribution the Russian and former USSR aliyah (immigration wave) made to the State of Israel."
"Russian immigrants, like all Israeli citizens, yearn for real peace based on recognition of Israel's right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people," the party said in a statement. "Unfortunately, it seems Clinton has forgotten that it was in fact Arafat who refused his far-reaching proposal which would have demanded insupportable concessions from Israel."
Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Ladver of Yisrael Beiteinu said that "any attempt of an outside element to divide the people of Israel is wrong. This immigration has contributed to our State's development in every single area, starting with science, culture and sports, up to economy and security.
"This year the entire country celebrated the 20th anniversary of the aliyah and salutes it. This expresses the fact that the people of Israel are one. It's a shame that external elements have yet to internalize this fact."
Coalition Chairman Zeev Elkin said he felt "great pride" following Clinton's remarks. Elkin, who a Russian immigrant himself, told Ynet, "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.
"We see this in the number of people graduating from IDF officer courses, and unfortunately, in the Second Lebanon War obituaries. We also see it in the struggle for our right to settle in all of the Land of Israel."
According to Elkin, Clinton's pressure on Israel has resulted in many casualties. "The same type of concessions Bill Clinton is pressuring since his term as president, which continue to this very day by his wife – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – have not brought more peace and security to Israel. In the past 20 years this pressure has claimed thousands of casualties.
"One can only imagine what would happen had the State of Israel accepted Clinton's vision. Withdrawing to the 1967 borders would turn the entire country, or at least the area between Gedera and Hadera, into one big Sderot.
"Former President Clinton was right by saying that the public of settlers and Russian speakers contributed to this hallucination not being realized. I am proud of that."
Attila Somfalvi and Yael Branovsky contributed to this report
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