Former US president Bill Clinton on Monday night urged Israel to work toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians, saying that he had never heard a credible alternative that would enable Israel to remain a Jewish and a democratic state. “No matter how many settlers you put out there [in the West Bank], the Palestinians are having more babies than the Israelis as a whole,” Clinton said, and thus demographics were working against Israel.

Clinton was answering questions after a speech at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot in honor of President Shimon Peres’s 90th birthday celebrations, which continue Tuesday through Thursday with Peres’s Presidential Conference in Jerusalem.

The former US president, who is understood to have donated his much-discussed $500,000 fee for the evening back to the Peres Academic Center for charitable use, made plain repeatedly that he shared Peres’s vision of peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians, and gently intimated that he considered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach overly bleak and cautious.

Some people are more risk-averse, he said, while “some people including President Peres and I believe that risk is part of life and you have to keep on trying to make good things happen….”

“If you don’t have a vision of where you want to wind up,” he said, “bad things are going to happen sooner or later… You have a better chance if you are driven by a vision of peace and reconciliation.”

Still, he noted, Netanyahu in his first term as prime minister reached an agreement that, had the Second Intifada not erupted, would have given the Palestinians “more of the West Bank than they have today.” And Netanyahu, in his second term as prime minister, Clinton recalled, froze settlement building for several months. The Palestinians “made a mistake” at the time “in not entering talks,” Clinton said.

Former US president Bill Clinton with Shimon Peres at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot on June 17, 2013 (Photo credit: Flash90)

Former US president Bill Clinton with Shimon Peres at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot on June 17, 2013 (Photo credit: Flash90)

Empathizing with the security challenges facing Israel, Clinton noted that “Things are going to hell in a handbasket all around you.” But, he stressed, “your neighbors are still your neighbors… One way or the other, you’re going to share your future with them.”

It was necessary and sensible to prepare for the worst, he said, but there was “no possibility” of a better future prevailing “if all you do is prepare for the worst and don’t work for the best.”

If it was “okay with you” to have a majority of people denied the vote in an expanded Israel, so be it, he said, but “would you be a democracy?” And “if you let them [the Palestinians] vote, would you be a Jewish state?” he asked rhetorically. “I just don’t think that in all these years a credible alternative has been presented that would preserve the essential character of the state of Israel — a Jewish but democratic state.”

The longer the Palestinian conflict remained unsolved, he said, the more acute the demographic challenge would become for Israel. “No matter how many settlers you put out there, the Palestinians are having more babies than the Israelis as a whole…  You’ve got an existential question to answer.”

He added: “I’m like President Peres. I don’t see any alternative to a Palestinian state… You’re going to have to share the future. Paint a picture in your mind of the future you want to have and take the logical steps to achieve it,” he urged. And if it didn’t work out, he said, Israel would have greater international support for its fallback positions.

Reflecting on the Friday election to the Iranian presidency of Hasan Rowhani, Clinton said it was premature to judge whether that vote could lead to negotiations that would prevent the fulfillment of what are feared to be Iran’s nuclear objectives.

“What this election in Iran tells us is that there are a lot of restive people in Iran who do not want to be isolated,” who do not hate the West and Israel, and who do not want to be in constant conflict, while there are others who like the current situation just fine.

Israel and the US, he said, have to work together on Iran — “to stay in constant contact and work through it.”

As for Syria, he said “there’s a chance that the rebel groups not only can be successful in their attempts to remove Mr. Assad, but also if the right people are involved could be induced to have shared power governance.”

Earlier, in his prepared remarks, Clinton said that “the saddest day of my presidency was the day prime minister Rabin lost his life” and that “never a week goes by, even now, that I don’t think of him and that I don’t think of the burdens Shimon took on in the wake of that day.”

He added: “I love this country more than I have words to say.”