FRIENDS, FOES AND FOREIGNERS: THE EMBATTLED ISRAELI PM SPEAKS
In an exclusive interview with Hamodia, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu discusses Iran, Israel’s terms for peace with the Palestinians, its unprecedented diplomatic breakthroughs around the world, and its responsibility to help ease the suffering of Jonathan Pollard.
There were two parts to our interview with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, held last week in his office at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv.
The formal part, the Q&A, gave us an insight into Netanyahu, the prime minister: his running of the country, how Israel’s economic policies have impacted its international standing, the threat Iran poses, and his view on anti-Semitism worldwide.
The informal part, the things we observed and the small talk that followed the interview, gave us an insight into the person who has been in power longer than any other prime minister.
Netanyahu is both loved and hated in Israel. When the cab driver who brought us to Metzudat Ze’ev learned that we were going to interview the prime minister, he pleaded to be allowed to join us. At the same time, his fiercest political opponents aggressively seek to dethrone him, or at the very least, to embarrass him and undermine his ability to rule effectively. But few deny his commitment to fighting for Israel’s security, his success in freeing the economy from the shackles of socialism and his ability to express himself with supreme confidence, which his detractors deem arrogance.
It is interesting to note that in discussing the red lines for a peace deal with the Palestinians, he did not speak of “settlement blocs” being left intact. Rather, he said, that “not a single settlement will be uprooted, not a single settler evicted from his home.” (This determination is rooted in his nationalistic political perspective, not to be mistaken for a religious connection to Eretz Yisrael as our inheritance, guaranteed by Hashem.)
As an expert on Iran, he pointed out that it didn’t need to actually use nuclear weapons to wreak havoc. By merely having such weapons, and threatening to use them, Iran will be able to utilize its conventional weapons without fear of international reprisal.
The informal part of the interview included a half-hour interruption when an aide rushed in with a special telephone and we were rushed out, while Netanyahu spoke to … President Trump? The head of the Mossad? We’ll never know.
Following the interview, he pointed to a book on great speeches he happened to be reading by William Safire, the late New York Times columnist. He opened it to a speech by the late Senator Henry Jackson, one of Israel’s greatest friends, delivered at an international terrorism conference in Yerushalayim organized by Netanyahu, then 29. It was held under the auspices of the Jonathan Institute, named after Netanyahu’s brother, Yoni, Hy”d, who was killed during the Entebbe rescue — a reminder of the prime minister’s personal connection to the battle against terrorism.
As we were packing up, he mentioned that he reads the parashah every Shabbos. “I read not only the Torah portion, but also the Haftarah,” he said. Is this a religious experience, or just a tradition he inherited?
Amid bitter complaints from supporters of Jonathan Pollard about the failure of the Israeli government to come to the aid of its own agent, the prime minister was also asked about whether he will reach out to President Trump on behalf of Pollard – whose wife has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer – and desperately needs his parole to be terminated so that he can take care of her medical needs.
We’d like to discuss the Trump administration’s “Deal of the Century”…
There’s nothing to discuss until it’s presented.
OK, but how are we preparing for it?
We’re preparing by making it clear to our friend the United States, and we have no greater friend than President Trump, what our vital interests are. I clarify this at every opportunity, as I did with previous presidents.
First, we insist on the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Second, that Yerushalayim will not be divided.
Third, that we will maintain practical control of the entire area west of the Jordan.
Fourth, that not a single settlement will be uprooted, not a single settler evicted from his home.
Fifth, we will of course protect our vital interests, which means maintaining control of the country’s airspace, and the electromagnetic space, which is extremely important.
From a practical standpoint, our concern is for the security of the State of Israel and settling our homeland.
And yet we’re in the midst of a building freeze in Yehudah and Shomron?
Who told you that? We just approved thousands more housing units. When you look at the figures, Israel is growing, b’ezrat Hashem, more than any country in the West, and more than most countries in the world.
And the two areas that have seen the most growth are Yehudah and Shomron, and the Gaza envelope communities, where growth is significantly higher than in the rest of the country.
So not only is there no freeze, but the opposite is the case.
Let’s turn the clock back to May 2015, and the United States is signing a nuclear agreement with Iran. Did it catch you off guard? You stood alone in the world fighting against it. Do you feel vindicated?
First, we weren’t surprised. We knew what was happening, we had signs …
Of course, I did everything possible to prevent the agreement. I thought it was dangerous to the state of Israel. It gave Iran a secure, relatively quick path to a nuclear arsenal because, in just a few years, it lifted the limitations on uranium enrichment — the most important, most difficult-to-obtain ingredient in nuclear weapons. With the ‘kashrut’ seal of the international community, Iran would be free to enrich as much uranium as it wanted. And it was planning to enrich hundreds of thousands of centrifuges, while already beginning development of advanced centrifuges, which the agreement allowed them to do. Therefore, it was clear that we had here a nuclear danger.
Second, Iran received a lot of money under the agreement. Those who supported the deal said that the tens of billions of dollars Iran received in investments would turn it into a moderate state, since it would have something to lose. I made the exact opposite claim, that it would be used to increase and expand its aggression.
Several years have passed since the agreement was signed, and people can judge who was right. It’s clear that Iran was like a leopard released from its cage, devouring one country after another.
I had to oppose the agreement because it imperiled the existence of Israel and posed a tremendous security risk to the entire Middle East, and I thought that under the circumstances I would have to speak out, even though all the great powers in the world – including to my regret the American administration – believed otherwise.
I can tell you that quite a few in the Israeli security establishment disagreed with me. But I thought that it was my responsibility as the prime minister of Israel to stand up for the things that are important for our survival and our future. Therefore I went to Congress and said clearly that this is a mistake, that the removal of sanctions should be predicated not on a change of calendar but on a change of Iranian behavior. There was nothing in it about that.
Iran would be free to pursue its nuclear programs without any relation to its goals of destroying Israel, conquering the Middle East and spreading terror worldwide. That’s absurd. And I think you can judge today that I was right about the agreement.
Happily, President Trump agreed with me and withdrew from the agreement and, yes, we can see today that the sanctions are having a very powerful effect. First, in putting tremendous pressure on the Iranian regime from within, and also in contracting the funds they have to continue their aggression from without.
Do you think that the successful testing of the Arrow-3 missile earlier this month could deter Iran from continuing with its nuclear weapons program, in light of Israel’s ability to defend against it?
I think Arrow is a tremendous achievement for Israel and Israel’s capacity to defend itself, but it is only one aspect of our efforts.
It should be understood that once Iran has a nuclear umbrella we will be faced with two dangers: One, a nuclear danger and, two, a conventional danger that enjoys the backing of nuclear weapons. These are two enormous threats that have to be countered, and I’ve devoted a good part of my adult life to fighting this danger, and sometimes I have to do this alone. Very often.
In fact, those people today in Israel who say they support my position supported the nuclear agreement at the time. One of them even said that I’d made a horrendous mistake in going to the U.S. Congress, because I was going to destroy the alliance with the United States [under the leadership of then-President Obama]. Well, since that admonition, President Trump has recognized our sovereignty over the Golan Heights and Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moved the American embassy there and withdrawn from the Iran agreement.
So much for their understanding of how to protect Israel’s interests.
What do you say to those who express concern that things might be good now between Israel and the United States, but there is a risk that we’ve lost bipartisan support in Congress, which could harm us in the future?
First of all, I think there is solid bipartisan support for Israel, even though the relative weight is changing.
I still remember the days when the United States had virtually mono-partisan support for Israel — the Democratic Party. The Republicans were much less supportive. The balance changes, but there is support in both parties.
This week I’m receiving a delegation of 40 Democratic Congressional representatives from the United States, and I make it a point to maintain contacts with both sides. But we cannot control internal changes in the United States. We just have to make sure that we express our interests forcefully to both sides, as I do, and as I did previously under the Bush administration and the Obama administration.
When President Bush demanded that Israel withdraw its forces from Jenin, Shechem and elsewhere in Operation Protective Shield (in 2002), I went and spoke in the U.S. Congress that very day, and talked to more than half of the U.S. Senate, and gave dozens of interviews, saying that this was wrong and that we couldn’t agree with it.
I did this even though I was a private citizen. But I offered my services to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, because what guides me is not a partisan affiliation but the security of Israel. So I’ll continue to do that.
There is a trend that is worrisome. There is a duality about Israel’s position in the world, even as our international relations and alliances expand as never before. We have diplomatic relations with over 160 states. I remember when I was in the United Nations (in 1984-1999) and it was 80.
And the great powers of the world are coming here.
Why is that? Conventional wisdom has it that if we don’t make peace with the Palestinians, we will be isolated internationally?
Well, it’s happening because I have led Israel in a completely different direction than the one that was advocated by our (political) adversaries on the left. They believe that first we have to make dangerous concessions to the Palestinians in order to get the Arab world to normalize its relations with us, and from there we’ll get to the world at large.
I reversed the direction 180 degrees. I said we’ll get the world, and the Arabs after that, by enhancing Israel’s powers, enhancing its technological-economic power and its security-intelligence power. All countries want protection from terrorism. Israel is perhaps the No. 1 power in preventing terrorist attacks.
Every country wants our civilian technology, which has flourished under the free-market policies that I introduced both as prime minister and finance minister. So Israel has become a power that people want to cooperate with.
We see that in Asia. For example, Japanese investments in Israel have grown by 200 times, not 200 percent , but 200 times! It’s in the billions. That’s because they understand that if they want an answer for the car industry, they need Israeli technology. We have about 600 companies — 600 companies! — in autonomous vehicle technology alone.
In cyber, Israel is now the number 2 recipient of cybersecurity investments in the world, even though we’re only one-tenth of one percent of the world’s population. We get 20 percent of the investment in private cybersecurity; that’s 200 times our size.
So countries come to us because of their interests and to share and enjoy the benefits of Israel’s technology. That would not have been possible if our marginal tax rates had remained 65 percent, and the Israeli economy was still constricted and uncompetitive.
The country has completely changed. It’s become as President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Modi of India told me, “a global technological power.”
Why? Because we opened up the economy. You may not be aware of it, but you can take money out of Israel and bring it in freely. But when I was first elected prime minister you couldn’t take more than one or two thousand dollars out of the country without receiving approval from a clerk at the Bank of Israel.
Can you imagine? We were a Third World economy. So you can’t imagine any of the things that you see around happening without this free-market revolution which I led and to which I’m committed. We need to continue in such areas as deregulation, infrastructure and many other things. That is critical.
But alongside Israel’s improving relations around the world, there are other tendencies that you see as well. In part of the West you see a very vocal minority that is anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, even anti-Semitic.
For example, how do you explain the rise of [Labour party leader] Corbyn in Britain? It’s certainly not explained by the question of what Israel is doing with Republicans or Democrats (in the U.S. Congress). It’s a built-in tendency that exists in some of the Western countries, and it doesn’t escape the United States either.
It’s also not something we necessarily can control.
We speak to all our friends, openly and honestly, about not only what our interests are but why it’s in their interests to cooperate with Israel.
A recent study by Tel Aviv University shows that anti-Semitism worldwide was up
13 percent in 2018 over the year before, with the highest number of incidents being reported in Western democracies, including the United States, France, Britain and Germany. How do you explain it?
It’s a combination of the old anti-Semitism; the coals are always burning there. This has been inflamed by radical Islamist influence on Muslim populations that sometimes are not necessarily anti-Israel.
So you have a combination of old anti-Semitism, with a new Islamist anti-Semitism in Western countries and also radical anarchists, anti-Semitism emerging from the left. All these three streams merge. They often agree on nothing else except for their hatred for Israel.
You have to understand that this comes in cycles. Anti-Semitism as we know it is an ideology that has been around for about 2,500 years. It’s not likely to go away soon.
[Dealing with this hatred] requires a great deal of experience and understanding of the international community. I think many voters understand what we’ve done and I’m grateful to them.
You’ve made more efforts on behalf of Jonathan Pollard than any other prime minister. Now that his wife is sick, is there anything you can do, using your close ties with President Trump, to either get him released to Israel or at least to ease his parole conditions so that he can take care of his wife?
Well, I’ll do whatever I can do, and I have done that.
You know I went to visit him. I think I was the only Israeli prime minister — at that time I was a former prime minister — to go see him in prison.
And I was impressed with his mental endurance. He had been in jail for decades, separated from his family, sometimes in difficult conditions, and he impressed me in his resilience, his commitment to Israel. It was very clear to me that it’s our responsibility to do everything to alleviate his suffering and, if possible, to end his suffering. He’s already paid his dues.
There’s no question about the fact that Israel feels a sense of responsibility, precisely because it was wrong to dispatch him to the United States. It was a terrible mistake on the part of the Israeli governments who did this. They admitted as much.
Now that he’s served his time, and his wife is very sick, I think from a purely humanitarian point of view it makes sense to try to end that suffering.
From what you know of President Trump, do you think he’ll be open to …
I don’t want to speak on behalf of the president, but I can tell you what I’ve said just now, which is what I’ve said to all previous American presidents.