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Bill Clinton's reinvention of Israel

Bill Clinton on Thursday blasted Benjamin Netanyahu, blaming the Israeli prime minister for the lack of progress toward peace with the Palestinians.

The errors and misstatements in Clinton's interview with bloggers are sufficient to change his reputation from that of a firm supporter of Israel into that of a firm supporter of Israelis who agree with his twisted version of the facts. Clinton simply blames the Israeli right for killing peace efforts. He appears entirely--in fact, embarrassingly-- unaware of what has actually happened to the Israeli right over the last ten years, where the change has been extraordinary.   

First, Ariel Sharon embraced Palestinian statehood in 2003, at the Aqaba Summit, and then took all Israeli settlements and bases out of Gaza in 2005. Sharon broke up his Likud Party over this, forming Kadima to back his policies. Likud fought those new Sharon policies for years, but Netanyahu is now bringing Likud, or most of it, around to supporting the basic Sharon view--that there should indeed be a Palestinian state. In his speech to the Knesset on Israeli independence day this year (May 16), ignored by Clinton (as it was by the Obama administration), Netanyahu agreed again to Palestinian statehood and the compromises it entails: "These compromises, by the way, will be hard to make because, no matter what, they involve parts of our homeland. It is not a strange land, it is the land of our forefathers, to which we have historic rights as well as security interests." In his speech, Netanyahu also said Israel "must maintain the settlement blocs," thereby tacitly acknowledging that every other settlement outside those few blocs may have to be given up.

Bill Clinton: Netanyahu killed the peace process

Clinton also failed to note what Israel has done under Netanyahu to help the Palestinian Authority's state-building project: Israel has allowed more and more Israeli Arabs to shop in the West Bank to help its economy, and removed scores of checkpoints and obstacles that limited mobility and economic activity there. The burst of Palestinian economic progress in the last several years, with growth rates far exceeding our own or Israel's, must be attributed in part to Netanyahu's policies.   

As he did last year, Clinton once again offered his vulgar, pop sociology explanation of Israel: "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. The most pro-peace Israelis are the Arabs; second the Sabras, the Jewish Israelis that were born there; third, the Ashkenazi of long-standing, the European Jews who came there around the time of Israel's founding. The most anti-peace are the ultra-religious, who believe they're supposed to keep Judea and Samaria, and the settler groups, and what you might call the territorialists, the people who just showed up lately and they're not encumbered by the historical record."

Natan Sharansky, one of those Soviet immigrants "who just showed up lately" and who Clinton presumably thinks does not want peace, said in response: "I am particularly disappointed by the president's casual use of inappropriate stereotypes about Israelis, dividing their views on peace based on ethnic origins." Presumably, if you disagree with Clinton over the necessary preconditions for peace, you are against peace entirely--and you need to be denounced. The implication that someone like Sharansky, because he is an immigrant from the USSR, is "not encumbered by the historical record" and is indifferent to Palestinian claims requires no refutation; Clinton should be ashamed of himself. Unlike Clinton, whose most frequent foreign visitor to the White House (13 times!) was Yasser Arafat, Sharansky has stressed the importance of human rights and democracy as a prerequisite for a Palestinian state. Clinton was apparently quite ready to allow Arafat to create a terrorist satrapy.

President Bill Clinton (C) flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during their joint meeting October 15, 1998 in Washington, DC as Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright attend White House

Clinton also spouts off about the 2002 "Arab Initiative," saying, "The King of Saudi Arabia started lining up all the Arab countries to say to the Israelis, 'if you work it out with the Palestinians ... we will give you immediately not only recognition but a political, economic, and security partnership.' ... This is huge.... It's a heck of a deal."

That "deal" was adopted at an Arab League summit attended by only 10 of the 22 Arab leaders of the day, and among those not in attendance were the king of Jordan, the president of Egypt, and Yasser Arafat--suggesting that support for this proposal may have been quite limited. Moreover, it was a take-it-or-leave-it offer, never proffered as a basis for negotiation. This "heck of a deal" required "Complete withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories, including the Syrian Golan Heights, to the 4 June 1967 line and the territories still occupied in southern Lebanon." In other words, go back to the indefensible 1967 borders, give up every settlement bloc, and give up every square foot of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall. Not quite as "huge" an offer as President Clinton recalls.

"The two great tragedies in modern Middle Eastern politics, which make you wonder if God wants Middle East peace or not, were Rabin's assassination and Sharon's stroke," Clinton said. I can think of some others: The fact that a terrorist and thief, Yasser Arafat, led the Palestinian people for decades; the fact that he turned down Israeli peace offers at Camp David; the fact that the Palestinians turned down Ehud Olmert's even more generous peace offers in 2008; the fact that thousands of Israelis were wounded or killed in the first and second intifadas; the fact that no Palestinian leader has ever spoken with candor to the Palestinian people about the compromises they will need to make in any peace agreement; the fact that for the last two and half years the Palestinian leadership has adamantly refused to come to the negotiating table.

In his Knesset speech, Netanyahu had a far clearer view than Clinton of the real tragedy: "The Palestinians regard this day, the foundation of the state of Israel, their nakba, their catastrophe. But their catastrophe was that they did not have a leadership that was willing to reach a true historic compromise between the Palestinian people and the Jewish people."  It is sad that President Clinton cannot seem to grasp this elementary fact.  

Bio: Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a regular contributor to the Weekly Standard. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.