September 23, 2010
Posted: 1618 GMT
Suggesting that Russian immigrants in Israel pose an obstacle to a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, former U.S. president Bill Clinton stepped into the mire of Middle Eastern politics this week and prompted a wave criticism from Israeli politicians including the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Clinton, speaking at a panel discussion of his Clinton Global Initiative Tuesday, told audience members "An increasing number of the young people in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem. It's a different Israel. 16 percent of Israelis speak Russian."
Referring to the over one million Russians immigrants who have come to the Jewish state since 1989 Clinton remarked "They've just got there, it's their country, they've made a commitment to the future there...they can't imagine any historical or other claims that would justify dividing it."
The controversial comments, first reported by the website of Foreign Policy magazine, come as the Obama administration, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, mediates high-stake direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians in an attempt to reach a historic peace agreement within the next year.
In Israel reaction to the Clinton's remarks has been extremely critical. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed "regret" over the comments late Wednesday and said "As a friend of Israel, Bill Clinton definitely knows that the immigrants from the former Soviet Union have contributed a great deal to the advancement, development and strengthening of the IDF and the State of Israel."
During the course of his comments Clinton recalled a 2000 conversation he had with then Israeli cabinet minister and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky in which he asked why Sharansky could not support the Camp David peace proposal he helped broker. Sharansky's response according to Clinton was 'I can't vote for this, I'm Russian... I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you."
Clinton went on to say that Sharansky "was nice about it, a lot of them aren't" referring to Russian immigrant's attitudes toward land for peace proposals.
In a statement to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Sharansky denied ever making such comments to Clinton and added "I am particularly disappointed by the president's casual use of inappropriate stereotypes about Israelis, dividing their views on peace based on ethnic origins. I must add that these are uncharacteristic comments from a man who has always been a sensitive and thoughtful listener and conversation partner"
Israel's nationalist political party Yisrael Beiteinu headed by Israeli foreign minister and former Soviet Union born Avigdor Lieberman also condemned Clinton's comments accusing the former president of "meddling in the internal affairs of another country" and scolding that he "forgot who turned down his far-reaching offer which demanded painful concessions from Israel's side, it was in fact the chairman of the Palestinian Authority Yasser Arafat"
CNN was unable to reach representatives from Clinton’s office via phone or email for comment, but in an interview with CNN earlier this week Clinton expressed his optimism that a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians could be reached calling a deal "imminently doable" but said the Palestinians made a mistake in 2000 not accepting the Camp David proposal commenting that "Arafat flaked out".
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