Former US president Bill Clinton acknowledged for the first time that he tried to help Shimon Peres win Israel’s general elections in 1996 against Benjamin Netanyahu.
In an interview broadcast on Israel’s Channel 10 news on Tuesday, the former president, who has not made a secret of his difficult relationship with Netanyahu, admitted intervening on Peres’s behalf in the elections that were held six months after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin because, he said, he saw Peres as more supportive of the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort.
In the interview excerpts broadcast on Tuesday, Clinton did not specify how he intervened.
However, having spoken at Rabin’s funeral in November 1995, Clinton in March 1996 hosted a so-called “summit of the peacemakers” in Egypt with regional leaders including Peres — who had taken over as prime minister after the assassination — Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Hussein and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Clinton then visited Israel, which was being battered by a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings. In April, he hosted Peres at the White House, where the two signed a joint declaration on combating terrorism.
All this was to no avail. Having trailed Peres in opinion polls before those terror attacks, Netanyahu narrowly won the May 1996 vote.
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Asked in the interview whether it would be “fair to say” that he “tried to help Shimon Peres to win the election,” Clinton replied: “That would be fair to say. I tried to do it in a way that didn’t overtly involve me.”
He explained: “I did try to be helpful to him because I thought he was more supportive of the peace process. And I tried to do it in a way that was consistent with what I believed to be in Israel’s interest, without saying anything about the difference in domestic polices, without anything else.”
When the victorious Netanyahu subsequently visited him at the White House, Clinton recalled, the new Israeli prime minister “wanted me to know that he knew I wasn’t for him and he beat us anyway.”
The former president laughed, then added: “And he was being very ‘Bibi'” (Netanyahu’s nickname).
“But, you know,” continued Clinton, “I realized that he was now the leader of the country and if I wanted to support the peace I had to find a way to work with him. I wasn’t so much angry as just bemused by the brashness with which he played his hand. But that’s who he is. He did a very good job of it.”
The Israeli right has charged on several occasions in recent years that the US has unacceptably sought to intervene in Israeli elections on behalf of more dovish forces. The charge was raised against the Obama Administration by the Likud in the most recent elections, won by Netanyahu, in 2015.
Tuesday’s report featured only brief excerpts of a longer interview which is to be broadcast next week. In another short excerpt, Clinton said he thinks the current Netanyahu-coalition considers the Palestinians too weak to constitute much of a threat.
“By the time prime minister Netanyahu got back in office [in March 2009] the security situation was markedly better on the West Bank because of President Abbas,” Clinton said.
“Now, the coalition that Prime Minister Netanyahu heads, I think they believe that the Palestinians are too weak to cause them any trouble. And the security seems to be working.”
Nonetheless, said Clinton, “I still hope that some day, if some decent accommodation could be reached, that Israel would be even more prosperous.”