Edward Isaac Dovere
Don’t buy what purports to be nationalism that’s engulfed politics in America and all over the world, former President Bill Clinton said Thursday; what’s actually at play, he argued, is more insidious and interconnected than that.
“People who claim to want the nation-state are actually trying to have a pan-national movement to institutionalize separatism and division within borders all over the world,” Clinton said. “It’s like we’re all having an identity crisis at once — and it is an inevitable consequence of the economic and social changes that have occurred at an increasingly rapid pace.”
Making his first major public appearance since his wife lost last year’s presidential election, Clinton did not discuss President Donald Trump specifically, but warned repeatedly against “us versus them” thinking that he said has become such an active part of politics in America, in the Brexit vote, in the Philippines and throughout Europe.
“The whole history of humankind is basically the definition of who is us and who is them, and the question of whether we should all live under the same set of rules,” Clinton said. He added that often, people “have found more political success and met the deep psychic needs people have had to feel that their identity requires them to be juxtaposed against someone else.”
Brookings President Strobe Talbott, who was Clinton’s roommate when they were both Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University, and served as his deputy secretary of state, introduced his former boss, saying, “No American president has worked harder for peace in the Middle East, both in office and out.”
Clinton repeatedly held up his old friend Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995, as the standard that contemporary politics is falling short of. Rabin was a man changed over his life, Clinton said, displayed courage and was so reliable that then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was so “in awe of him” that he was ready to make agreements based on trust.
Rabin “was smart, he was careful, he understood the insecurities which roil through every society at every time—and instead of being paralyzed by them or trying to take advantage of them, he tried to take account and bring them along,” Clinton said.
And going back 25 years in Israeli politics, Clinton reminded the audience that when Rabin became prime minister in 1992, he was subject to a “relentless assault on his legitimacy, his personal legitimacy by the radical right in Israel,” which included two rabbinic rulings justifying the killing of a Jew by another Jew.
Rabin’s assassin was a Jewish Israeli opposed to the peace process, who cited such logic after shooting the prime minister at the end of a rally on Nov. 4, 1995.
That, Clinton said, is another lesson to take from what happened to Rabin. “We have to find a way to bring simple, personal decency and trust back to our politics,” he said.
Clinton called the day of the assassination his worst day in the White House, adding, “I remain convinced that had he lived we would have achieved a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians by 1998 and we’d be living in a different world today.”
He recalled Rabin telling him once that he was making peace because otherwise, “Very soon we will either no longer be a democracy or no longer be a Jewish state.”
Clinton urged leaders and their constituents to try to rediscover Rabin as a model, rather than continuing down the current path of politics, though “we are programmed biologically, instinctively, to prefer win-lose situations, us versus them.”
“This is a very old story. It’s as old as the Holy Land, and much older. Ever since the first people stood up on the East African savanna, ever since the first families and clans,” Clinton said, “ever since people encountered the other. It is a very old story. And it always comes down to two things — are we going to live in an us-and-them world, or a world that we live in together?”
Rabin’s tough-minded approach to finding ways to work and live together is what’s needed, Clinton said. “If you got that, in every age and time, the challenges we face can be resolved in a way to keep us going forward, instead of taking us to the edge of our destruction.”