Bill Clinton has caused anger in Israel by describing Russian-speaking immigrants to the Jewish state as a significant obstacle to a peace deal with the Palestinians.
The former US president claimed that the million-strong community of Jews who emigrated from former Soviet states after the collapse of Communism was generally more opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state than other Israelis.
Portraying Russian youngsters as one of “the hardest core” groups against the division of the Holy Land, Mr Clinton said: “This presents a staggering problem. It’s a different Israel. Sixteen per cent of Israelis speak Russian. They’ve just got here,” he told reporters in New York.
“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.”
Mr Clinton’s comments were condemned by many in Israel, among them Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s prime minister. “As an old friend of Israel, Clinton surely knows that the immigrants have made a large contribution to the strengthening and development of Israel and the [Israel Defence Forces],” Mr Netanyahu said.
But the strongest criticism came from Russian-speaking Israeli politicians. Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and now a leading political figure on the Israeli right, said: “I am particularly disappointed by the president’s casual use of inappropriate stereotypes about Israelis, dividing their views on peace based on ethnic origins.”
There was also condemnation from the ultra-Zionist Israel Beiteinu party led by Avigdor Lieberman, Mr Netanyahu’s hawkish foreign minister. The party, which draws the vast majority of its support from Russian speakers, criticised Mr Clinton for meddling in Israel’s internal affairs and dismissed his comments as “crude generalisations”.
Yet observers say there is little doubt that the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union has shifted the Israeli political landscape to the right. Yisrael Beiteinu swept to third place in last year’s general elections on a platform that some critics said was racist towards Israel’s Arab minority. The party has criticised the latest round of negotiations with Palestinian leaders.
Some Russian-speaking voters said they saw Mr Clinton’s comments as a badge of pride that reflected their patriotism and their justified suspicion towards Palestinians.