Did Bill Clinton Really Say That about Netanyahu?

A September 16, 2014 Times of Israel article by Stuart Winer reported on some eye-opening off-the-cuff remarks made in Iowa on Sunday, September 14, by former president Bill Clinton about Benjamin Netanyahu. Winer reported:

An activist said of Netanyahu, “If we don’t force him to have peace, we won’t have peace.”

“First of all, I agree with that,” Clinton said. “But in 2000, [former prime minister] Ehud Barak, I got him to agree to something I’m not sure I would have gotten Rabin to agree to, and Rabin was murdered for giving land to the Palestinians.”

“But Netanyahu is not the guy,” suggested the activist.

“I agree with that, but…I had him [Arafat] a state… He would have gotten 96% of the West Bank, land swaps in Gaza, appropriate water rights and East Jerusalem, something that hasn’t even been discussed since I left office,” Clinton replied.”

With his two simple “I agree with that” statements, Clinton chose not to balance his criticism of Netanyahu with any criticism of Mahmoud Abbas. The implication: Abbas’s stance was fine, if only Netanyahu could have been forced to accept his demands.

True, Bill Clinton was not delivering a carefully written policy speech, and perhaps one has to make allowances for off-the-cuff remarks. On the other hand, one could imagine off-the-cuff replies like “Well I think both Netanyahu and Abbas have to modify their positions in order to have peace.”

Why might Clinton have criticized Abbas?

According to reliable reports, among the reasons for the failure of the July 2013-March 2014 negotiations, Abbas refused any long run presence of Israeli forces along the Jordan Valley or within the West Bank. He rejected out of hand recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish People. He also refused to drop the “right of return” or to agree to an end-of-conflict clause.

Other negatives during the period of negotiation: Abbas made the racist demand that not one Israeli could remain in Palestine. He also made the point, particularly painful to Israelis, of praising as heroes the Palestinian murderers released as part of the deal to undertake the Kerry-sponsored negotiations.

All this comes in the context of ongoing Palestinian Authority (PA) incitement, in their school curricula, in their media and in their mosques. For example: claims that Beersheva, Ashdod and Haifa are part of Palestine; denigration of a Jewish historical connection to the land of Israel; denial that the Jewish Temples stood in Jerusalem, and worse. This drumbeat of negative propaganda promotes irredentist attitudes towards Israel that are antithetical to a “peace” process.

And yet with all of the above, on September 14, 2014, Bill Clinton could not bring himself to criticize Mahmoud Abbas for at least partial responsibility for the failure of the Kerry-sponsored negotiations.

And, with the glaring example of what the Palestinians did in Gaza following Israel’s voluntary withdrawal in 2005, it’s realistic to believe that any territory ceded to the Palestinians in the West Bank would, sooner or later, be used for organizing the next stage in their attempt to destroy Israel. Sadly, that’s more likely than the beginning of peaceable side-by-side co-existence. And this is the Fatah-dominated PA and not Hamas or Islamic Jihad, which do not disguise their goals of destroying Israel and killing Jews.

After this summer’s rocket, mortar, and tunnel attacks from Gaza, it’s disappointing that Bill Clinton and the Obama Administration do not apply pressure on Mahmoud Abbas and the PA by publicly supporting Israel’s clear need to maintain long run military control of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley. Not having such control would simply risk putting Israel in mortal danger, given the “high ground” topography of the West Bank and the utter vulnerability of Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv and the populous coastal plain to rocket and mortar fire.

Why not invite foreign troops to patrol the Jordan Valley instead of Israeli forces? This week’s withdrawal of UN peacekeeping forces from the Golan Heights after clashes there is only the latest example of why Israel cannot rely on non-Israeli forces for its protection. A long-term Israeli military presence along the Jordan Valley and in the West Bank, (which this summer prevented a coup by Hamas), has to be part of any feasible solution – as Rabin and Netanyahu averred and which Abbas still rejects.

(As an aside, it is no wonder that Clinton reflected that he likely could not have persuaded Yitzhak Rabin to accept the positions taken by Ehud Barak. Rabin’s vision of the permanent solution with the Palestinians was definitely not the Clinton/Obama model.)

There is another discouraging take-away from Bill Clinton’s agreement with the statement, “If we don’t force him [Netanyahu] to have peace, we won’t have peace.” That is, that Israel’s democratic choice is not respected. Were Israel not a vibrant democracy, were it a country where Netanyahu was going against the Israeli public’s strong wishes, then one might understand Clinton’s endorsement of “forcing” Netanyahu. But, the truth is that Netanyahu was the choice of the Israeli electorate in elections in 2009 and 2013. Latest polls in Israel show, as has continually been the case for at least two years, that Netanyahu is considered by the Israeli public as the politician most suited to be Prime Minister of Israel – by a very wide margin. But, none of that seems to count for Bill Clinton.

In 2010, another Bill Clinton comment of Israel’s democracy was the subject of much adverse reaction. He said “An increasing number of the young people in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem.” Even if this blanket stereotyping were correct, it shows an unattractive disdain for Israelis with the “wrong” opinions.

Bill Clinton is not the only prominent US politician implying non-respect for the Israeli electorate’s decisions. In President Barack Obama’s speech to university students in Jerusalem in March 2013 he said, “Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.” For some listeners this sounded like not-so-subtle, indirect criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu and a call for change pressed from below.

Looking ahead, opinion polls and assessments by numerous political commentators in the United States see Hillary Clinton as the strong favorite to be elected President in 2016. Will a successful election to the presidency by Hillary Clinton be followed, in effect, by a “Team Clinton” presidency? Do Bill Clinton’s views on Netanyahu and the PA reflect Hillary’s true positions? Some answers are needed.

About the Author
Lewis Rosen is a retired economist who has lived in Jerusalem for more than 35 years. Born and educated in the US, he worked for the Office of Economic Opportunity for two years in Washington D.C. and was on the economics faculty of York University in Toronto, Canada for 13 years. In Israel he has been involved in a wide range of business planning and economic analysis projects.