FORMER MINISTER Tzachi Hanegbi cannot wait to return to the cabinet, where he can make an impact on key issues like Iran.
As he sits restlessly in a cafe near his home in Mevaseret Zion, his phone keeps ringing. He tells each Likud central committee member who phones him that he will return their call soon. The only call he takes is from his mother, former MK Geula Cohen.
While Cohen always remained firmly on the Right of the political map, Hanegbi has now returned to Likud after six years in Kadima.
Hanegbi says his views never changed. He was a hawk in Kadima, and he is now a relative dove in Likud on the Palestinian issue.
But when it comes to Iran, Hanegbi is among the most outspoken hard-liners. He doubts sanctions can work, and he feels Israel must prepare for war. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Hanegbi downplays the threat of regional war, calls US president Barack Obama a friend of Israel, speaks about his political ambitions, and apologizes for opposing Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt.
Do you think the strengthened international sanctions on Iran can prevent its nuclearization?
I haven’t seen intelligence reports in two years. I regularly saw the reports as chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. I recall that there was a wide gap between what was in the press and the facts seen only by those with access to intelligence.
Making decisions based on what I see in the press is not serious or responsible. But based on my experience, I am completely skeptical about the ability to defeat the motivation of Iran to develop nuclear weapons with sanctions at this time. If the international community had adopted crippling sanctions with Russia, China, and India supporting them seven years ago, they could have been effective. I think it is now too little and too late. I don’t see the regime backtracking from its plan to bypass the sanctions and stall time until they reach the threshold of a military nuclear capability. I think that’s what the Iranians are trying to do.
In his UN speech, Netanyahu extended the deadline for preventing Iran’s nuclearization to June, the month of the Iranian election. Is there hope for a regime change in Iran?
There is a lot of ignorance on Iran. The election in June can’t bring regime change. The Iranian president is a clerk. The ayatollah has no term limit, and he decides Iran’s policies. The prime minister made a point of not setting a firm deadline. He noted the pace of Iran’s advancement. The 70 percent he mentioned in his UN speech was more general on Iran’s progress on their path to nuclearization, not specifically on enrichment. There are a lot of parameters – development of missiles, warheads, immunity, technology. He explained his expectations from the international community.
Do you think war with Iran is inevitable?
If I was one of the deciders, I wouldn’t accept a nuclear Iran. Are we willing to pay the price of potential problems with the US and the region? I don’t know without seeing intelligence reports on our operational plans and abilities for the past two years. I am against accepting a nuclear Iran as long as we can prevent it. I have said the fear of a regional war is exaggerated. Israel can contain the responses to an attack from Iran and its satellites. I don’t estimate that there will be a regional war. Hezbollah’s considerations are more complicated than people realize. They aren’t under Iran on all issues.
I don’t think it’s definite that Hezbollah would decide to set Lebanon back to the stone age because of something they were told by Iran. Whether Israel or the US attacks doesn’t matter because either way the retaliation would be against us.
Are we ready for such retaliation?
At least until the last time I was involved, there was an understanding among all the leaders and generals that we need to be ready if Israel is left alone against an Iranian nuclear threat. They ordered that Israel be ready. I don’t know what has been achieved in the two years.
Should Israelis be worried about Obama’s victory?
Obama said Israel has a right to act. I don’t think the Americans will attack Iran, but it’s just a gut feeling. The Americans are true friends of Israel, Obama too, he is still a friend of Israel. The Americans went through years of Cold War with the Soviet Union that could have resulted in a much more deadly nuclear conflict.
It was prevented due to the concept of mutually assured destruction. We can’t rely on that concept, because we can’t trust the judgment of fanatical leaders.
Does the recent Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt vindicate your strong opposition to the peace agreement Israel signed with the Egyptians?
There is a danger of a conflict with Egypt, but such a scenario is contrary to the Egyptian interest, so more weight is given to optimistic options. It’s hard to feed millions of hungry Egyptians if they attack Israel and break ties with the United States. But in the Middle East you can never know what will happen. I made a mistake when I opposed the peace agreement. I thought there would be an attack on Beersheba as soon as we left. There have been 35 years of quiet, which were an important strategic asset. We were free from dealing with a demanding front, and the peace deal helped us diplomatically, economically, etc.
Is regime change in Syria good for Israel?
When Assad goes it will be better, because the axis of evil of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah would be broken. The ability to cause Israel significant damage would decrease. There are different scenarios of what can happen in Syria, including democracy, the country splitting, and continued chaos, but they are all less of an immediate threat to Israel than the continuation of Syria in the axis of evil that is led by Iran.
Turning to politics, what do you think about the Likud’s quest for a new Sephardi leader in the absence of departed minister Moshe Kahlon?
I think the issue is ridiculous. I don’t think people vote on that anymore. All our Likud leaders were Ashkenazi and most of our voters are Sephardi but that is fine. My mother is Yemenite. Many of our leaders have Sephardi roots. People don’t realize that Gideon Sa’ar is half Bukharan, for instance. I don’t think Likud has a problem with this issue. It’s just that a man who was very credible on the socioeconomic issue is less active in these elections.
Do you regret leaving Likud for Kadima?
I came to the party because of Ariel Sharon. He left less than a month after I came, due to his stroke. I don’t like to deal with the past. I did what felt right at the time. I tried all along to connect Kadima to Likud. My views in the two parties didn’t change, and I didn’t see a big difference between the two. Olmert didn’t want to hear it when I told him to work together with Likud. I was glad that [Shaul] Mofaz formed a national-unity government, though he didn’t consult with me. I thought it would help me come home to Likud. When Mofaz took the incomprehensible step of removing the party from the coalition after a month, I decided the time had come to go to where my heart was.
How have the Likudniks received you?
I am being received well. There are people who are still emotional about my leaving for Kadima. It still pains them. Some people tell me ’it pained me when you left but I am happy my son has come home.’ But some feel that I will make the party less right-wing and hurt the effort to move the party to the Right. It’s a struggle over the path of the Likud, which I don’t think should be extremist. Bibi [Netanyahu] told me he wants me among the party’s top candidates and he will work for me, and I appreciated that. But I never asked for a portfolio.
The prime minister always invited me to his office and told me that with what I have I don’t think I need to hunt for a job.
You have been mentioned as a possible defense minister.
I don’t think I am a candidate for defense minister. The top portfolios are given to party heads and the Likud’s highest ranking leaders. I don’t think I’ll be among them. I know I have to pay a price for my seven years of absence. I was No. 1 after the party leader in the 2003 list of Likud candidates. In my political career, I dealt mostly with foreign affairs and defense. That’s where my training has been. But I was health minister and environment minister, so any portfolio is fine. Since 2004 I’ve been out of public service and I just can’t wait to come back.
Do you still have prime ministerial aspirations?
I have said a thousand times that I don’t see myself as prime minister in the near future. You can’t be a serious candidate if you haven’t held one of the top three portfolios: foreign affairs, finance or defense.
I have no business plan, but I have ambition to return in the most fulfilling role possible. I am now 56, the most veteran in next Knesset other than Fuad [Binyamin Ben-Eliezer] along with Michael Eitan and Amir Peretz. No one in Likud has been a minister for longer than I have.
Perhaps Netanyahu won’t run again. Do you think you could be his successor?
Bibi is at the height of his strength politically and physically. I think if he gets elected this time, he will win again next time. I am not among the strugglers for that job over the next 10 years. I just want to spend the next decade doing important things to help the country. You can ask me that question again in another 10 years.
MEIR JAVEDANFAR was born in Iran, educated in Iran and England, and lives in Tel Aviv – but when it comes to the international battle over how to prevent Iran’s nuclearization, he believes that president Obama's approach towards Iran is working.
He believes Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has harmed Israel by bluffing too much on Iran, while he credits Obama with getting the world on board for sanctions.
Javedanfar teaches at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center and is internationally sought after as a lecturer on Iran.
The Jerusalem Post caught up with him in Washington, DC. He expressed optimism that Iran can be stopped through non-military means.
What approach would you use to prevent Iran’s nuclearization?
Sanctions are very influential in targeting the revolutionary guard. The sanctions harm the financing of the nuclear program and can ultimately threaten the existence of the regime.
We also need to continue with diplomacy, because it strengthens those in Iran pressuring [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei to make a deal. Iran’s refusal to take diplomacy seriously enables isolating them even more. Sanctions and diplomacy can stop Iran.
What do you think about Netanyahu’s theory that sanctions must be combined with a credible military threat to succeed?
I don’t believe we need a military approach unless Israel’s existence is in danger, and we are very far from that. You need to have a range of options, a toolbox, to make Iran compromise. However Netanyahu’s excessive reliance on the military threat has been hurting Israel’s legitimate case against Iran, by making Israel look alarmist.
Potentially, it could make Israel look militarily incompetent. If someone says, for more than seven years, that they are going to bomb you and they don’t do it, at some point the countries in the region won’t take you seriously.
[Defense Minister Ehud] Barak boasted that he already got Iran to delay its nuclear military program by diverting uranium to its research reactor. Is that not a sign of hope?
If I were sitting in Khamenei’s office, I would say Netanyahu and Barak are finding another excuse for an attack that we are never really going to do. We never had this with Iraq and Syria. We didn’t talk about them. We just did it.
Do you agree with Obama’s critics, who say he hasn’t done enough on Iran?
Obama has done a tremendous job,. He has done more damage to Iran in four years than [George W.] Bush did in eight. Under Obama, Iran is far more isolated. He got Russia and China on board for negotiations on the side of America. Obama also managed to get an international consensus for unprecedented sanctions against Iran.
What is your prediction on Iran?
Iran will accept compromises, including limiting enrichment, which will be done under tight supervision. Iran will not make a bomb.
Israel will win its battle to stop Iran’s nuclear program with the international community’s help through sanctions and diplomacy, within two to three years.