Bill Clinton's comments that Russian immigrants are obstacle to peace draw Israeli ire

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli leaders have sharply criticized Bill Clinton over comments the former U.S. president made this week calling Russian immigrants in Israel an obstacle to peace.

Clinton, who is generally a well-loved figure in Israel for his efforts to broker a Mideast peace deal in the 1990s, also said at a round-table group this week in New York that the most recent arrivals in Israel have the hardest time agreeing to share the land with the Palestinians.

"An increasing number of the young people in the IDF (Israel Defense Force) 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. Sixteen percent of Israelis speak Russian."

The remarks were first reported by Foreign Policy Magazine's Cable blog.

Clinton couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.

The comments, which come amid recently renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks sponsored by President Barack Obama, have sparked an uproar in Israel.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beitenu party relies heavily on immigrant support, lashed out at Clinton, slamming his remarks as "crude generalizations" and accusing him of meddling in Israel's internal affairs.

"The people of Israel are one nation and the Russian immigrants, like the other citizens of Israel, want true peace based on the recognition of Israel's right to exist as the national state of the Jewish people," Lieberman said in a statement.

"Unfortunately, it appears that Clinton has forgotten that the one who refused the far reaching offer that meant harsh Israeli concessions was actually Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat."

In 2000, at the end of Clinton's tenure, peace talks broke down when the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected Clinton's proposal.

But Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu sought to downplay the former president's remarks, saying in a statement Wednesday that he "regrets" the comments and that Clinton, as a friend of Israel, was well aware of the great contribution of its Russian immigrant community.

Clinton called the Russian immigrant population in Israel the group least interested in 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."

The former president added that those who have been in Israel the longest and "have the benefit of historical context" were those most supportive of peace in Israel.

"They can imagine sharing a future," he said.

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Associated Press writer Beth Fouhy contributed to this report from New York.