Former US President Bill Clinton hailed the political prowess of newly re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying the “highly intelligent” Israeli leader should never be underestimated, but adding a back-handed compliment.
“You should never underestimate him, he’s highly intelligent, he understands his electorate,” Clinton said on stage Thursday at an event in New York City, as final vote counts in Israel confirmed that Netanyahu is heading for a fifth term as prime minister.
Then Clinton added: “He’s smart and able and he knows how to hit people where they’re tender.”
Clinton was speaking at an event at the Beacon Theater alongside his wife, former US secretary of state and failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“There’s lots of minority parties in Israel, and more of them are aligned with the settler movement or religious fundamentalism than secularism or wanting peace,” he said. “Israel is a vital democracy, and they are having these debates and they will work it out.”
“There has to be some approach to reconciling the security needs of the Israelis with the need for greater autonomy and governance by the Palestinians,” Clinton said.
Clinton had a frequently tense relationship with Netanyahu during the 1996-99 period when their presidency and prime ministership overlapped. Last year he acknowledged for the first time that he tried to help Shimon Peres win Israel’s general elections in 1996 against Netanyahu because, he said, he saw Peres as more supportive of the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort.
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… And he was being very ‘Bibi’”
“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.”
Also at Thursday’s New York event, Hillary Clinton discussed the dramatic arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in London hours earlier.
“The bottom line is that he has to answer for what he has done, at least as it has been charged,” she said.
WikiLeaks published damaging emails stolen from Hillary Clinton and her Democratic Party’s computer servers during her failed 2016 US presidential race against Donald Trump.
Assange was arrested earlier Thursday after Ecuador revoked the political asylum that had kept him holed up at the embassy for nearly seven years. The US is seeking Assange’s extradition.
In a tongue-in-cheek nod to Trump’s hard-line immigration stance, she added, “I do think it’s a little ironic that he’s the only foreigner this administration would welcome to the United States.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.