Bill Clinton and the Russian Israelis

23 September 2010, 1800 EDT

Former President Clinton jumped into the Mideast Peace process earlier this week. According to Josh Rogin’s reporting at The Cable, Clinton met with a group of reporters and, when asked to comment about the current negotiations, began by saying:

“I wouldn’t say too much about this if Hillary weren’t Secretary of State and in charge of these negotiations, so I’m darned sure not going to say too much now.”

Ah, but that’s not like Mr. Clinton.

And it wasn’t.

According to Rogin, Clinton then proceeded “to go in depth on the issue for more than ten minutes.” In case you missed it, he suggested that the massive wave of Russian Jewish migration to Israel over the past two decades now makes a peace agreement much more difficult:

“An increasing number of the young people in the IDF 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. 16 percent of Israelis speak Russian.

According to Clinton, the Russian immigrant population in Israel is the group least interested in striking 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.”

While the comments haven’t registered in the American press, they did trigger a strong response from the Israeli right and the Russian emigre community. Netanyahu called the comments regrettable and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing (and mostly Russian emigre) party Yisrael Beitenu blasted Clinton for his”crude generalizations” about Russian emigres.

But, Clinton is right. The one million former Soviet Jews who migrated to Israel since the end of the Cold War have significantly altered the political landscape in Israel. Israel is different today than it was a decade ago. Majorities of these immigrants now consistently vote for right wing candidates and their views on the peace process tend to be significantly more hawkish than the rest of the public. And given the fragmented nature of the Israeli political system, a coherent bloc of this size wields significant political influence. Yisrael Beitenu is the third largest party in the Knesset — behind Kadima and Likud and ahead of Labor — and, as a member of the ruling coalition, is threatening to bring down Netanyahu’s government if he doesn’t lift the moratorium on settlements this weekend.

Natasha Mozgovaya — who emigrated from Russia as a child and is now the US correspondent for Haaretz — has this assessment:

…the Russian immigrants are the sector of the Israel population which has had almost no contact with the Palestinians, and sometimes even the Arabs who live in Israel.

…Terror and the West Bank separation fence have prevented any direct positive contact with the Palestinians. Some of the immigrants lacked the nuanced knowledge about the conflict prior to their coming to Israel, but they were quick to impose the “we need to fight to win” attitude, rather than “we need to talk to solve this.”

“We saw this in Chechnya,” some would say. “We saw this in Afghanistan in 70s. It’s the same mentality. They understand only force.”

While some Israelis remember with nostalgia buying hummus in Arab cities, the “Russians” remember mainly the suicide attacks….

These developments, along with other trends in Israeli society, will only increase the constraints on future Israeli governments on the peace process. All of which make Clinton’s comments more relevant at this moment and makes Aluf Benn’s editorial yesterday in Haaretz more compelling.

But don’t hold your breath.