JERUSALEM (AP) — Former President Bill Clinton urged Israel to make peace with Palestinians in order to survive as a Jewish and democratic state at a conference Monday evening, adding his voice to a chorus of prominent pro-Israel figures warning of the urgency of peacemaking for the country’s own survival.
Clinton spoke hours after an Israeli Cabinet minister declared that the Palestinians would not establish a state in territory Israel controls.
It underscored a chasm between the country’s official support for creating an independent Palestinian state and the hard-line opponents who dominate Israel’s ruling coalition.
Repeating arguments made for years by Israeli doves and centrists, Clinton warned that increasing numbers of Palestinians under Israeli rule will ultimately force the country to lose either its Jewish majority or its democratic nature if Palestinians are not given equal rights as citizens.
“Is it really okay with you if Israel has a majority of its people living within your territory who are not now, and never will be, allowed to vote?” Clinton asked at a conference in central Israel honoring President Shimon Peres, who is turning 90.
“If it is, can you say with a straight face that you’ll be a democracy? If you let them vote, can you live with not being a Jewish state? And if you can’t live with one of those things, then you are left with trying to cobble together some theory of a two-state solution,” he said, with a Palestinian state next to Israel.
Clinton was referring to the 4.4 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, territories that Israel conquered in the 1967 Mideast war. Another 1.4 million live inside Israel, alongside about 6.5 million Jews.
Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but it retains significant control over movement of goods and people. Israel has built more than 100 settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, where some 500,000 of its citizens live. Israel annexed east Jerusalem and sees its settlements there as neighborhoods. The international community does not recognize the annexation.
Peace negotiations have repeatedly stalled in recent years. Palestinians say they will not negotiate while Israel builds in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which they claim for their future state, along with Gaza. Israel insists talks must resume without conditions.
Clinton criticized Palestinians for not negotiating with Israel in 2010, when there was a months-long settlement building slowdown.
The ex-President’s comments came after Cabinet minister Naftali Bennett said the Palestinians’ hopes of creating a state in territories controlled by Israel had reached a “dead end.”
Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home Party, echoed ideas expressed by other officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government.
“The idea that a Palestinian state will arise inside the Land of Israel has reached a dead end,” Bennett said Monday at a meeting of the Yesha settler group.
“Never in the history of Israel have so many people dealt with so much energy with something so pointless,” he said.
The statements came as the U.S. is trying to build momentum for peace talks to resume.
Many Israelis don’t want their country to withdraw from the West Bank or parts of east Jerusalem because they have deep religious significance for many devout Jews, who see it as their biblical heartland and heritage.
Other Israelis worry that violent groups will fill the vacuum if they withdraw from areas under its control. They cite the case of the Gaza Strip, where the Palestinian militant Hamas seized control after Israel pulled out.
Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, shootings and rocket attacks.
Bennett said that the policy of Israeli land concessions and withdrawals has failed. “Terrorists entered everywhere that Israel withdrew from,” he said.
Last week, Netanyahu’s deputy defense minister and member of his own Likud party, Danny Danon, said “there is certainly no majority” in the Likud for establishing a Palestinian state based on Israel’s borders before the 1967 Mideast war.
Last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shuttled between Israel and the Palestinians to try to restart talks. His return to the region has been postponed.
The Palestinians’ chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, condemned Bennett’s remarks. “These are not isolated events, but a reaffirmation of political platforms and radical beliefs,” he said. “Israel has officially declared the death of the two-state solution.”