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During an hour-long interview a week ago today, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu's foreign affairs adviser, Ari Harow, was asked to explain the meaning of his employer's uncharacteristic silence of late. Little did we know that my question was about to become as laughably irrelevant as his answer was unwittingly prescient.
"You're going to be hearing a lot more from him," said Harow, a veteran immigrant from the United States, who also heads the Likud party's Anglo division.
And hear from him we did.
That very evening, Netanyahu told Channel 1's Haim Yavin that not only had he known about the Israel Air Force raid on nuclear targets in Syria, but that he had congratulated Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the operation.
Yavin didn't even try to hide his thrill at the slip of the tongue that made his show the talk of the town for days to come.
Nor did the government and the Left skip a beat in milking the morsel for all it was worth politically. After all, the entire country was being kept in the dark about the details of what came to be known as the "alleged air strike that the IDF did or did not carry out in Syria."
And the local media was forced to rely on foreign sources not only for information but for quotes as well - since publication of any original findings was nixed by the military censor.
Netanyahu's overt blooper on live television, then, became as big a scoop as the covert episode it exposed.
As for the Right: It, too, went ballistic, so to speak, reminding its critics that last December, Olmert had made a far worse faux pas when he "betrayed" the country's policy of ambiguity by basically admitting to Israel's nuclear capability - in Berlin, of all places; on German TV, no less.
There was no choice, then, but to conduct a follow-up conversation with Harow, a 34-year-old married father-of-two, whose background would appear to belie his affiliation. A Bnei Akiva boy - both in Los Angeles, where he spent his early childhood, and subsequently in Israel from the age of 12, when his parents made aliya - Harow grew up in the Neveh Aliza neighborhood of the Karnei Shomron settlement. After serving in the Golani Brigade, he returned to the US to complete his studies at the City University of New York. Upon returning to the Holy Land, he worked for the nationalist Hebrew weekly, Makor Rishon, and later for the conservative media-monitoring Web site, HonestReporting. It was then that he was offered the job of heading American Likud and took it, thus capping his growing disillusionment with the National Religious Party (due, he explained, to its behavior in the Ehud Barak-led government), and beginning his close and lengthy association with Netanyahu. It was also the stepping stone to his current position, which he described as "all-encompassing."
Your boss made quite a stir with his acknowledgement of the alleged IAF air strike on a rumored joint North Korean-Iranian nuclear facility in Syria. Was this a tactic on his part, or a slip of the tongue?
It was absolutely not a tactic. Having been in numerous meetings and interviews with him over the past few weeks, I can say with certainly that he has been extremely careful to avoid any and all comment.
I think that we are misguided in focusing our attention on unintentional statements, rather than on intentional ones. For example, just last week, Prime Minister Olmert stated that he has great respect for President Assad of Syria. This is the same Assad who houses and safeguards the headquarters of every major Palestinian terrorist organization bent on Israel's destruction. The same Assad who funnels a never-ending supply of weaponry to the Hizbullah so that it can prepare for round two. The same Assad who helps fuel the insurgency in Iraq. Statements with clear intent - those which appease terror, or those, such as [Deputy Prime Minister] Haim Ramon's on relinquishing the Temple Mount and dividing Jerusalem - are what we should be worried about, and where public attention should be focused.
Speaking of focus, during the recent Likud primaries, critics on the Right said that Netanyahu was more concerned with Moshe Feiglin as an opponent than with Ehud Olmert. Is this because he assumes he's going to win the next general election and become prime minister anyway?
In the first place, he does assume that he will win the next election for prime minister. Most of the country feels that way, as well.
Second, there was little concern about any of his opponents within the Likud, which is evident in the speeches he made. He really didn't touch on the other candidates; he focused on national issues. In relation to Olmert, he talked about the need to oppose any unilateral concessions, to prevent the creation of any additional Iranian enclaves here in the region. Indeed, he has not only been the leading spokesperson on the Iranian issue, but he's led the divestment movement in the United States and elsewhere.
Speaking of Iran, the alleged IAF air strike on Syria has caused a rise in Olmert's popularity. Netanyahu's statements about it have caused a drop in his own. Do you think this issue will determine the actual gap between the two?
It's a temporary blip in the polls. The people have seen the direction - or lack thereof - characteristic of this government and Olmert for a year and a half. An isolated incident, no matter how successful and important it was, is not going to change that perception. The alleged [air strike in Syria] may have been a positive move on behalf of the state, but there are still missiles falling on the Negev; the Iranians are moving closer to a nuclear weapon; Olmert's talking about reaching a declaration of principles with a Palestinian leader who has no following and who can't deliver anything; and he's talking about unilateral withdrawals from the heartland. These are not issues the public is going to overlook.
Hasn't Netanyahu also come to consider a Palestinian state a fait accompli?
Netanyahu has made certain things very clear. One is that there's no partner on the other side - that there is no room for any movement in Judea and Samaria now. Anything that has been given over so far - as we saw with former prime minister Ehud Barak's withdrawal from Lebanon, former prime minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza and Olmert's conclusion of last summer's war - has turned into an Iranian enclave. Bibi has said many times that any such movement in Judea and Samaria would result in the same type of thing. And the difference between past withdrawals and a potential pullout from Judea and Samaria is vast. As terrible as those withdrawals have been, a withdrawal from Judea and Samaria would jeopardize Ben-Gurion Airport, the entire center of the country, our entire eastern border and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It could also open up the gates to a greater Iran. There's definitely no room for any movement on that front at this point.
At this point? Are you saying there could be room for it at some point?
Right now, and for the foreseeable future, there's nothing to discuss.
What does being Netanyahu's foreign affairs adviser entail?
It's an all-encompassing position. I deal with the foreign press; I deal with supporters abroad; I strategize on how to best utilize international relationships and visits; and I deal with a lot of his diplomatic activities.
As his adviser, is it your job to tell Netanyahu what he should be doing, or the other way round?
We have a good relationship, so neither of us "tells" the other anything; it's more like a discussion. I come to him with a game plan - and make my recommendations on who and when and why - and then we hash it out together. But ultimately it's my job to say what his focus should be.
What is your game plan? What should his focus be?
That depends on where we go. There are constant invitations from all over the world. Right now, we're planning a trip to the Unites States.
Do you consider the US the most important target of your focus?
No question. It is the only superpower in the world today, and its ability to influence the issues we face is much greater than that of the other players.
What is your greatest challenge on trips to the US? What is their purpose; where are their pitfalls; and what do you have to take into account?
We have to take stock of the situation in Israel, and that plays into what our goals will be, once abroad. That's something we discuss and analyze whenever we get close to a trip. Something that Bibi has always made a point of doing when he's out of the country is speaking to students on college campuses and in high schools about the importance of defending Israel.
In addition, obviously, there are national interests that have to be taken into consideration - chief among them the grave and immediate Iranian threat. This has been the main focus of his previous trips, and I'm sure it will continue to be their focus until it's dealt with properly.
How is Netanyahu received in the US?
The vast majority of people within the political establishment, the Jewish community and among the Christians are extremely supportive.
Yet Christian supporters of Netanyahu's positions tend to vote Republican, while the majority of Jews are Democrats. How can he be well-received by both?
Though there may be differences of opinion within the Jewish community, support for Bibi is wall-to-wall.
Even among the Jews - who would rather see Hillary Clinton in the White House than Rudy Giuliani? Does this not indicate a political disconnect?
Rightfully or not, the American-Jewish community tends to separate domestic from foreign-policy issues in general, and with regard to Israel specifically.
As someone who spent his formative years in Neveh Aliza in Karnei Shomron, you are the stereotype of the Anglo settler. Why are you affiliated with the Likud and not the National Union-National Religious Party?
The Likud party represents all walks of Israeli life. It has religious and non-religious members; it has immigrants from different countries and native-born Israelis. There's a place for everyone in its ranks. I believe that the larger, mainstream parties are where difference-making actually happens. And though it is true that I grew up on a settlement - and that my heart is still in Judea and Samaria - I think that the Likud is the best vehicle for protecting and representing the people of Judea and Samaria - and the entire country. Stepping away from the diplomatic and security issues for a moment, there are other major challenges the country faces today - in economics, education, social welfare, etc. - challenges I feel only the Likud can rise to.
Have you felt this way ever since you got into politics or has it been an evolution?
It's definitely been an evolution. I grew up in the Bnei Akiva movement, both in LA and in Israel. I was disappointed when the National Religious Party sat in the Barak government, and gave a hand to some of his moves. That was when I realized that the Likud was the only right-of-center party that could have an influence.
Even after Sharon bolted to form Kadima, causing the Likud to shrink considerably?
The Kadima bolt, as devastating politically as it was at the time, was not a bad thing.
Why? Because it weeded out members who no longer adhered to the Likud ideology?
Exactly. In addition to which, many of the characters who left for Kadima were the ones who were giving the Likud a bad name. I mean, look at all the investigations of Kadima members going on today. We had a few very difficult years before Sharon and company bolted. But their doing so enabled us to clarify where the Likud stands and work from there. And people are starting to return in droves. New members keep signing up.
What if the Likud doesn't do as well as you expect in the next elections? Would Netanyahu join Kadima to form a government?
It's really hard to say, since politics in Israel change from day to day. But ultimately, any candidate needs 61 seats to form a government. So, of course, ideally the Likud will garner 61-plus seats and we won't have to worry about it. It's really a numbers game. The more support the Likud gets, the less dependent it will be on other parties.
Which brings us to the question of electoral reform. The "numbers game" you're referring to is a function of the electoral system. And Netanyahu has been known to adjust his position on electoral reform according to his own "numbers."
So, what is the Likud's position? Is it or is it not better to have a system more resembling the American model?
It's a complex issue. Anyone who answers that question lightly is not doing it justice. But the Likud does support electoral reform, which you will hear and see prior to the next elections. An example of how not to deal with it is what we saw when [Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor] Lieberman made his joining the government conditional on the passing of electoral reform laws. That was more for public consumption than an actual move to change the system and do what's right for the country. As a responsible party - and as the party that intends to lead this country in the next elections - we will present a very clear plan on electoral reform. And you will see it implemented once we reach power.
Can you envision a situation before then in which Netanyahu would join a national unity government with Olmert - say, if Israel decides to attack Iran?
I think that right now the answer would be no. This government has clearly failed. It has lost the trust of the people. The people want new elections and new leadership, and that's what we, as the opposition, are offering. Bibi and the Likud have shown that in time of national crisis we can support the government from the outside. When Olmert decided to go to war last summer, he had wall-to-wall support in the Knesset.
Whom does Netanyahu consider a greater threat - Labor or Kadima?
Neither. It's very clear to him, as I mentioned, that people have had it with this government.
Perhaps. Still, the country has been going about its business, and a majority of the "people" haven't been demonstrating in the streets to oust the government.
The system, as it works, allows 61 Knesset members to "guard the cream," and it's not so easy to pull them away from it. It is documented that the midway point of any term in office is an important milestone, because that's when politicians start realizing that the countdown has begun. That's when parties and individuals start to consider their options. We're almost at that halfway point. Once we reach it, we're going to see participants start to reassess their involvement. Hopefully, this will lead to elections sooner rather than later.
A common criticism of Netanyahu is that, rather than sticking to what he does best - explain Israel's case to the world and strengthen the economy - he is not satisfied unless he's prime minister.
Nobody can handle either Israel's hasbara or its economy better than a prime minister. Furthermore, Bibi has shown that he throws himself into and succeeds at any job he undertakes better than anyone else.
You're talking as though Netanyahu hasn't had a shot at being prime minister. Many argue that he had his chance and he blew it.
In fact, he did deliver on many different fronts when he was prime minister. Security, for example. There was a nosedive in terrorism during his tenure. And he started moving the economy in the right direction - a job he was able to finish when he was finance minister.
What about Anglo olim? Though our numbers aren't great - in spite of the efforts of Nefesh B'Nefesh - you are charged with targeting and courting immigrants from English-speaking countries. Do we really count? Does Netanyahu think we do?
There's no question about that. First of all, everybody counts. But the Anglo aliya bears a certain additional weight to it. Anglos can and do play a tremendous role in the hasbara issue. What's unique about us is our proactivism. Aliya from English-speaking countries is proactive. The doing of it is a proactive statement. There's a natural extension when it comes to getting involved in a political movement. That's why Bibi asked me to create the Anglo division within the Likud, in which there's been tremendous interest throughout the country.