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Bill Clinton At Shimon Peres's President's Conference Jerusalem
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Clinton receives the Shimon Peres Presidential Award of Distinction
photo by Rhonda Spivak

photo by Rhonda Spivak

photo by Rhonda Spivak

Editor's Report: The Story Behind Bill Clinton's Controversial Speech in Jerusalem , the Clinton Foundation and the US Election

by Rhonda Spivak, Sept 26, 2016

As the American election campaign rages on and as the Clinton Foundation comes under increased scrutiny with some calls  for it to be closed altogether, I have been thinking about the time  I heard  Bill Clinton speak at Shimon Peres's Presidents conference in Jerusalem. Clinton's appearance there caused an  absolute uproar in Israel when  the Israeli public learned through Israeli media that  Bill Clinton was to be paid  $500,000 in return for his coming to Israel to give a speech at a gala evening in Rehovot, and for taking part in the President's Conference, for Shimon Peres's 90th birthday.  The speaking fee to the Clinton Foundation was to be absorbed by the Peres Academic Centre and others, and by the time  the President's  conference I attended  took place, everyone in the country was talking about the exorbitant speaking fee, which was all the more exorbitant  to Israelis, many of whom live in "minus" (  debt) and can barely keep afloat financially.  


I remember Clinton's speech very well since I had a stroke of luck when getting my entrance ticket to the hall in the Jerusalem Convention Centre (Binyanei Ha'uma), the same building where years earlier I received my call to the Israeli Bar.  Journalists were all supposed to be seated in the upper balcony, but for some reason my ticket was on the main floor. Realizing the mistake, I said nothing and took my seat in row 22, only to discover that I had landed up in a section designated for  Israeli television crews from all the major stations. The television crews all asked who I was and laughed when I said I was the Editor of the Winnipeg Jewish Review, and when I explained to them in Hebrew that I had decided not to say anything to the  media organizers about the mistake but instead had chosen to use the "upgraded ticket" and get a much better seat on the main floor.(I actually ended up making some good contacts) .


It so happened that a friend of mine from Winnipeg was in Israel for work related reasons and I got him into the Conference as my photographer. He brought an excellent quality video camera and  regular camera and promised to video Clinton's entire speech and get great photos as well. (The Israeli television crew laughed even harder when I explained that he wasn't a real professional photographer but was a friend and that we both managed to get seats in their section).


I had brought my low quality $120 dollar camera along with a very limited zoom and decided that  I would try to take some photos of Clinton while he spoke. I noticed a security guard who was moving towards the stage and decided to follow him, walking directly behind him, realizing that if he didn't turn his head around 180 degrees he wouldn't notice me. As he walked he got to the area that was roped off for the front section of  VIP's there to hear Clinton speak, and he opened up the ropes and walked into the front section . I followed directly behind him and managed to get into the fifth row, with a clear view of  Clinton and crouched down during the speech in the aisle so I could snap photos of Clinton. I remember the woman seated near where I was sitting crouched down in the aisle saying to her friend as Clinton arrived to the podium "Oh, he's so good looking." She was too enthralled with Clinton's looks to bother to ask me to move away from where I sat in my crouched position and so I remained there for the duration of the speech, snapping as many shots of Clinton, with my camera's limited zoom function.


After the speech I returned to my seat and my friend asked me where I had been and I explained how I'd managed to get some pretty decent shots of Clinton from the fifth row, although I was sure that they wouldn't be as good as his.  That's when my friend told me that he had begun videotaping Clinton' s speech but his battery died and as a result he didn't get any  video of Clinton and he also hadn't taken any photos of him either. The television crews laughed when they realized this,  which is when I told them that at least I had gotten some photos of Clinton with my rinky dinky camera. "That's why I am the Editor in Chief and he's not," I said, pointing to my friend.


Clinton spoke about the  need for a two state solution  saying that "There are no perfect solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict," adding that the "key is to expand the definition of 'us' and shrink definition of 'them." 


While there is no doubt that Bill Clinton is a talented orator, his speech that evening did not quell the uproar in Israel about the $500,000 speaking fee to the Clinton Foundation.  I remember getting into a cab at the end of the evening and the cab driver said, "Isn't it nice that Bill Clinton came to Shimon Peres's 90th Birthday Party. I'm sure that if I paid him $500,000 he would come to my birthday party too. You can quote me " I could not  help but laugh. "If the speech was worth $500,000 then maybe my photos of Bill Clinton making the speech would be worth $500,000," I responded. He said he would discount my fare because of that line. I responded, "I'll pay full fare. Just send the bill to the Clinton Foundation."


In the end, it turned out that there was such a public backlash that decided to donate the $500,000  back to the Peres Academic Center . Arutz Sheva reported that although the money was slated to have gone to the Clinton Foundation,according to Professor Ron Shapira, president of the Peres Academic Center, Clinton decided to donate the money to the Center so that it could be dedicated to scholarships for students of the institution.


I do not know of any other occasion where Bill Clinton returned a speaking fee. As an aside, if you want to see a  disturbing documentary about the Clinton Foundation, which is what has helped unleash the torrent of controversy about it, you can watch the full documentary  called  "Clinton Cash" by clicking here v=7LYRUOd_QoM. ) It's worth noting that a major Nigerian Clinton Foundation donor has been denied entry into the  US due to terror ties , and specifically is being investigated for ties to Hezbollah (Major Clinton Foundation donor denied entry into US due to terror ties) . I am sympathetic to USA Today's editorial that it is time to mothball the Clinton Foundation  and " transfer its important charitable work to another large American charity such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation," thereby avoiding conflict of interests, and  "pay to play" opportunities. )


Turning back to Clinton's speech in Jerusalem,if Hillary Clinton becomes the President of the United States, (and at the time of the writing of this article she is ahead in the polls), I have wondered whether it is possible that Bill Clinton might be sent back to the Middle East to try to forge a peace agreement (however unlikely) between Israel and the Palestinians. The Clinton plan for a two state solution would no doubt be the blueprint for such a peace agreement. It is the one to which  Ehud Barak agreed, but  not Yassir Arafat . 


Before Clinton spoke at Shimon Peres's Presidential Conference , Peres said Bill Clinton,that the ""two-state solution is your gift to Israel" and "Your work laid the foundations which will one day bring peace to our region – the two state solution."


Peres also gave an interview to Ynet news in advance of his 90th birthday, in which he said, " ...I do think that by the country's [Israel's] 70-year celebrations, there will be peace. I want to hope. It is not just optimism." (Ynetnews News - Peres: Peace to prevail by Israel's 70th birthday).


Peres is now 92 years old and has suffered a major stroke and Israel's 70th Birthday is less than two years away. I  have a senaking suspicion that that Peres's  prediction about peace prevailing by Israel's 70th birthday unfortunately will turn out to be wrong. But, of course, I hope I am wrong. 

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.