The setting had nothing to do with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech about the Middle East peace process. It was a press event at the United Nations in New York Monday to announce that Bill Clinton would be taking the post of special envoy to Haiti.
But even as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon's spokesperson was trying to cut the questions short, the former president could not resist going off-topic – baited, of course, by reporters.
Nonetheless, Mr. Clinton hailed Mr. Netanyahu for "going on the record as open to some two-state solution," though he added that the conditions the prime minister set would be "completely unacceptable to the Palestinians."
But drawing on his own experience with the Middle East conflict, Clinton said no one should take Netanyahu's speech as the final word. "You should see this as opening moves ... to not alienate the US and keep the ball rolling."
Employing the silver tongue for which he is known the world over, he added, "This is the opening play ... and it's a drama that will have a few more acts."
The reaction of another former US president, however, was less positive. Jimmy Carter has been in the region during the past week, during which time he met with the Hamas leadership in Gaza – one of the few Western leaders who has done so. While visiting the Israeli parliament Sunday, he said: "My opinion is [Netanyahu] raised many new obstacles to peace that had not existed under previous prime ministers."
"He still apparently insists on expansion of existing settlements, he demands that the Palestinians and the Arabs recognise Israel as a Jewish state, although 20 percent of its citizens here are not Jews. This is a new demand," Mr. Carter added.
But he said there remains opportunity for compromise. "I have to say that in spite of the differences between my president, Barack Obama, and Prime Minister Netanyahu, greater differences existed between myself and then-prime minister Begin," Carter said.
For his part, current US President Obama hailed Netanyahu's address Monday, saying, "I thought that there was positive movement in the prime minister's speech."