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Netanyahu Upfront

July 22, 2019 | by Amnon Lord and Israel Hayom and Boaz Bismuth

Israel Hayom's wide-ranging interview with Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently became the longest-serving prime minister in Israel.

Q: In the past, people said that Israel was a state that was destabilizing the Middle East.

"They also used to say that all the problems in the Middle East were the result of the Palestinian problem."

Q: And what is the situation today?

"There isn't anyone who makes that claim seriously anymore. Even our sworn enemies are ashamed to say it because it's obvious that the lack of stability here is the result of the struggle between the Dark Ages and modernism – between the tyranny of radical Islam and the forces of freedom. That's the most important battle. That is what is destabilizing everything. Standing up to the fundamentalist Islam that wants to take over first the Middle East and then the entire world. If there's one element that is stabilizing the Middle East and fighting radical Islam here, it's Israel. The IDF is the only army in the world that is fighting the Iranian military, and that says it all. The ones who say that more than anyone else are the Arab nations. Their appreciation of us is going sky high. Their ties with us are growing closer. Even Europe understands that."

Q: In the past, including in the time of Ben-Gurion, foreign leaders would scold the Israeli premier.

"I'm not scolded too much. As the person who serves as the leader of the state of a people who broke the rules of history, rose from the ashes and built itself a state with a strong army, I've never felt that I arrive at meetings in an inferior position. I come with sober, realistic, positions, with deep confidence in what I represent. Therefore, one needs to speak with all due respect, and I'm not afraid of confrontation when Israel's interests demand it."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is interviewed by Israel Hayom
Editor-in-Chief Boaz Bismuth, center, and Amnon Lord | Photo: Arik Sultan

Q: The confrontation you had with former US President Obama, on camera. Was that something you planned?

"I don't call that a confrontation, I call it the truth. I told the truth about our people. The truth about the Middle East. About the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I said that the root of the conflict lies in their refusal to recognize the Jewish state. Afterward, I heard it described as defiance. I didn't see it that way. It's true that it came in response to President Obama's remark that Israel should return to the 1967 borders. I respected Obama but I wasn't afraid to express my position and he wasn't afraid to express his. What wasn't taken for granted was that I, as the prime minister of Israel, wasn't bowing down. Even as much as we disagreed about Iran, it didn't prevent us from arriving at a very important agreement that contributed a lot to our defense – $38 billion in aid over a 10-year period. I value that highly."

Q: At the time, it was said that we were 'losing' America.

"America is our most important ally, but not our only one. Its importance can't be overstated. But I believe that we also need to create alliances with other countries, not because they will take the place of the US, but because we increase our strength by forging ties with more nations. I've invested almost 40 years in fostering the most important element of our ties with America, which is public opinion in the US. While [Israel's] ties with other countries are mostly based on mutual interests, our alliance with the US is mainly based on shared values. Values that identify us. At the end of the day, in a democracy like the US, policy on Israel stems not only from the person sitting in the White House but also the following factors: public opinion and how it is reflected in Congress, as well as in the White House. In general, Israelis tend to think that it's just a question of who is in the White House. I held the opinion that it is vital to building a broad network of support for any event in any situation. It doesn't matter who the president is."

Q: Some claim that US support for Israel today comes from one party.

"It didn't use to be a single party. When I was studying in the US after I finished the army, most of the support for Israel came from the Democratic Party. I didn't find too many fervent supporters of Israel among the Republicans. That changed because America changed. The center of balance of the support changed. I'm not ignoring the voices that oppose us, either. We can't change people and we can't control the internal processes that are taking place in other countries. To a limited extent, we can influence them. We need to maximize our hold on the pillars of support and do as much as possible to check the points of opposition."

Q: How would you define our current relations with Russia? Have they prevented a war in the north?

"The answer is yes. At least that's what [President] Putin said, and I'm quoting him. When I was asked to run [for prime minister] again in 2000, I met Putin for the first time at a Chabad House in Moscow. He asked my wife for permission to steal me away for a few minutes. Three hours later, no one was left in the synagogue and we left. Since then, we've met several times. When he sent his forces into Syria, I immediately flew over and talked to him. There were two possibilities. I remember from the time I was a young soldier on the banks of the Suez Canal, how the IDF fought the Russians."

"We downed their aircraft; they used surface-to-air fire to bring down our planes. It was obvious that we didn't want to fight each other. I told him, with the directness that characterized our relations – there is mutual respect between us and we speak directly and to the point – that I would have to take action in Syria, that I wasn't willing to allow Iran to bring its army to our borders. They [Iran] announce their intention of annihilating us. 'What would you do?' I asked him. I told him that I was sure he would do the same as me, and so we would continue our actions. That raised the question of how we would operate in such a crowded area if there was no coordination between us [Israel and Russia]. From the moment, we started to coordinate."

"Since then, we've had 12 meetings. We took care to draw a red line between the IDF and the Russian army and from time to time, I would bring the IDF chief of staff or the head of the National Security Council or the head of the air force to Moscow for these meetings, so we could dot the I's and cross the T's of the coordination. That prevented a war and preserved the freedom of action that is vital to us. It was achieved through direct contact between leaders and persuasive abilities. Secondly, there was the determined nature of the action. Thirdly, we created additional mutual interests with Russia."

Q: But with them, it's just a matter of interests. Where are the shared values?

"First of all, there are a million Russian speakers here [in Israel]. They are a cultural and human bridge."

Q: Are they important to Putin?

"I think it creates an immediate bond. The bridge creates ties. Secondly, he admires the fact that I appreciate Russia's role and contribution and suffering in defeating the Nazis. That's something he doesn't always hear. But he hears it from me. Not because I want to appeal to him, but because I think we should take into account what the Red Army did to contain the Nazis. And we always need to remember that there were about half a million Jewish soldiers who fought with the Red Army. Walking through Red Square, hearing 'Hativka' played here – it thrills the spirit. It shows you where we used to be. They mark Russia's victory over the Nazis, but Russia wouldn't have been wiped out even if it had been occupied. We know that we [the Jews] were nearly wiped out. We were the fragments of a people – dust and ashes. And now, 73 years after the victory, a prime minister of Israel is standing up and forming close ties [with Russia] and is one of only two foreign leaders who were invited to the march."

Q: Do we have mutual interests?

"In the tripartite meeting with the US that took place here, we reached an agreement on a target for getting Iran out of Syria. That target tells you a lot."

Q: A Russian immigrant [Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Lieberman] is accusing you of wanting to found a state-run by Jewish law.

"That's a bad joke. I won't allow a state-run by Jewish law to be established here, and I've stated that. When the state was founded, there was a question about how we would handle the issue of religion and state. We are the only people through which the threads of both nationality and religion run. There are countries that have a lot of religions and there are religions that include a lot of different peoples. We are a unique people because we lost our land and established our national roots in our religion until we could re-establish our own state. Someone said, 'Next year in the Vatican'? Ben-Gurion faced the dilemma of religion and state. On one side, there is a religious minority that wants a state governed by Jewish law, and on the other, there is the secular majority who opposes that. How do we solve it? We're trying to solve it through ad hoc compromises. In one community there's no public transportation on Shabbat, and in other places, there is, or the [local] Cinematheque is open. It depends on the community."

Q: You talk about Ben-Gurion, who spoke about balances and the status quo. But I've found remarks of his in which he called the Bible 'our mandate.' Today, those remarks would be condemned as 'religification.'

"No. The Bible isn't the sole province of the religious public. It belongs to the Jewish people. It's not by chance that we're here. In those 2,000 years [of exile] there was a great coming into being during which the Bible was written. It's our people's book, the one that establishes our identity. There are universal things in the Bible that belong to all of humanity. There is no place where it is expressed more strongly. The Bible is the foundation of our existence. That is what my father [the historian Benzion Netanyahu] taught me. He was a nationalist whose worldview was anchored in the Bible. I married the daughter of a winner of the International Bible Quiz. And I re-launched Bible study at the Prime Minister's Residence. I want to increase Torah study. I was asked what our core studies were – math and English and science. The same is true in Korea. I'm a Jew who respects Jewish tradition. When I meet haredi MKs and we talk about the weekly Torah portion.

Q: A party of generals. It seems as if you had a long-term conflict with the security and defense establishment about Iran. What happened there? Former GOC Northern Command Yair Golan accuses you of blowing the Iranian threat out of proportion.

"It's vital to identify a danger in time. If there's one thing that characterizes our people, it's that we haven't spotted threats in time. My father wrote a book about a leader of the Jews of Spain who was a genius as well as the finance minister, Don Isaac Abravanel. And in 1492, shortly before the Jews were expelled from Spain, he writes that the situation of Spanish Jewry had never been better. A short time later, one of our greatest disasters befell us, and I can give you more examples. The Jews' lack of ability to foresee the danger of the Holocaust. The arguments about Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who they called an alarmist, and they said the danger in Europe was not an existential threat. It is vital to identify a threat. I saw Iran as a terrible threat and wrote about it back in 1979. I saw the threat of radical Islam. It was clear to me that Islamism would replace Nasser's pan-Arabism. They [the Iranians] were simply busy fighting a war with their neighbor, Iraq. The moment they were free, they continued the revolution that was designed to spread a murderous, zealous ideology. And a regime like that arming itself with nuclear weapons is an existential threat."

"The first time I was elected prime minister, I saw that the matter still hadn't sunk in. We weren't in complete agreement, to say the least. We were busy with the Palestinians. And no one gave a thought to the issue, even if there was understanding. Yitzhak Rabin did actually think about it. We discussed it a few times. But our systems weren't calibrated for a confrontation. Not in terms of diplomacy, not in terms of intelligence, not in terms of the military. There was a need to turn the ship around. When I left the Prime Minister's Office, I did everything I could to bring about sanctions against Iran. I told [then-PM Ehud] Olmert that I wanted to work in the US at the diplomatic level for countries to apply sanctions to Iran. I wouldn't have done that without his approval. As prime minister, I've once again done everything in my power to bring about American sanctions against Iran, as well as prepare our forces to pre-empt the threat. I think that the international community, which thought we would take military action, decided that the way of preventing us from doing do was to issue these sanctions."

Q: Were we very close to military action?

"We were very serious. It was no bluff. The Obama administration thought so. In any case, as a result of a number of different considerations – and that might have been the main one – the US issued sanctions. Iran collapsed under the pressure. It started to feel the pressure. Then came the [2015] nuclear deal, which let up on the pressure. It gave them a pathway – an expressway – to nuclear capabilities within a few years. It wasn't conditional on any change in their behavior. The argument was that if Iran received millions as a result of the sanctions being lifted, it would become a moderate state. Today, we can judge. I argued the opposite. Happily, President Trump withdrew from the deal and is applying new pressure to Iran. The answer is pressure, pressure, and more pressure."

Q: Do you support an attempt to bring down the Iranian regime, or negotiations that will lead to a better deal?

"I support pressure that will do one or the other. It doesn't matter so much which. But it could lead to one or the other. I won't weep if there is a regime change, but [pressure] could also lead to a change within the regime, a change of policy. Right now, their policy is to quietly pursue nuclear weapons while also conquering the Middle East with the money that the eased sanctions sent flooding into Iran's coffers."

Q: Ben-Gurion said that Israel's fate depended on two things: strength and justness. Which is harder to maintain these days?

"You need to increase power, not maintain it. My outlook is built on bolstering our strengths. Without strength, we won't survive. The weak don't survive. A strong people forces alliances. So from the first moment, the main question about Israel's existence was whether we would be able to develop the strengths to not only confront our enemies but also be accepted by the rest of the world. The simple fact is that what makes the world accept you is first and foremost, your strength. You think that the various Asian powers are accepted because they adhere to the practice of meditation?

"Or because of their moral principles and liberalism? Obviously, we also want the support of public opinion and the free nations for our truth and the justice of our path. That's what I've done in the US. There is no Israeli who has worked more than me to sway American public opinion. I talk about justice there, about our rights. They say we're a primitive state, an apartheid state. One that cruel to women, to minorities. The lies about us are absurd, and I'm hungry to smash them. At the same time, I tried to bolster and double Israel's power. I gave instructions to build thousands of [missile] interceptors. There's one bad thing about all these weapons – they cost a lot. Where will the money – tens of billions a year – come from? It will come from fostering our economic strength, by fostering a growing economy and by a relatively low tax rate to create a lot more revenue.

"I've learned that you need to develop a relative advantage, and it's only possible in a free economy. So I've devoted a major part of my public life to liberating the Israeli economy, which was concentrate and even demi-socialist, with a huge public sector that was burdening the private sector. The fat were riding the backs of the thin. When I first became prime minister, an Israeli citizen couldn't take more than $1,000-2,000 out of the country without a special permit from the Bank of Israel. Could the start-up nation have functioned that way? I freed the currency. I also handled the deficits, and not by printing money, but by setting priorities. It demanded some very difficult things, like reducing child stipends. All these decisions led to growth. There is a difference between thinking and doing. You need to shed political blood, and I paid the highest price in the short-term. Economic strength determines military might. Seven years ago, I set a goal of Israel becoming one of the five leading world powers in the cyber sector. I can say that thanks to our cyber capabilities, we've prevented 50 major terrorist attacks. When the world sees the quality of the technology, everyone wants to benefit from it. The 'diplomatic tsunami' folks argue that the way into the world starts with dangerous, extensive territorial concessions, which will make us accepted in the Arab world. I argued that we needed to take the opposite approach – first reach out to the world, and from there approach the Arab world. Our ties with the Arabs are stronger than they've ever been. That might lead to a deal with the Palestinians we could live with. I believe in strength. My rivals believe in concessions that will lead to weakness."

Q: What drives you after so many years in power?

"A sense of devotion to basing Israel's strength in the time allotted to me. The public determines how much time I have, not me. Analysts say these things so often that we get sick of hearing them. My mission is, first of all, to check the threats, complete the liberation of the Israeli economy, and reduce regulation. We were one place above last on an OECD index [on economic freedom]. Now we've jumped 15 places. I want to reach the top five. You have no idea how happy the citizens of Israel would be. The small business owners whose lives we make miserable with regulations and legal entanglements – they have to be freed. And that will be reflected in prices and in economic growth.

"What also motivates me is the need to stop another threat to us – missiles. We're on the way to solving the problem, to continuing to normalize relations with the Arab world, and possibly by doing that solving the conflict with our Palestinian neighbors. The choice is between me, with experience and the results that I bring, or Benny Gantz, who lacks experience. I don't think he can operate in the various fields I've described. He doesn't share the views I've described. To be a leader of Israel, which we have made into a rising power on the international stage, you need to be able to play on the global pitch. You have to. If the prime minister of Israel doesn't take direct action on US public opinion, he can't act as an equal, he can't initiate economic and international processes that concern Israel, and Israel won't continue on its current path. I want to keep strengthening Israel, and also very much want to train the leadership that will come later."

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