He is in an enviable political position, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He is in a political position most other world leaders would die for. Here he is, just a few days from elections, and his worry is not whether he will win the upcoming elections, but rather by how much, by how large a majority, and who he will need to bring into his governing coalition.
Think about that for a moment.
This is a leader widely assailed by much of the world; a leader whom a US columnist this week reported was verbally dumped on by US President Barack Obama. This is a leader whose own commitment to peace has been not so subtly questioned by even his own president, and whose former security services head – Yuval Diskin – trashed a few weeks ago in a six-page spread in one of the nation’s leading papers, a paper that itself has been driven by a campaign to dethrone him.
This is a leader whose predecessor – Ehud Olmert – blames for wasting NIS 11 billion on delusional, adventurous military plans. And yet this is a leader going to the elections on Tuesday not wondering whether he will win, but rather how wide his margin of victory will be.
And that explains the calm with which Netanyahu welcomed The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday to his small, map lined study in the Prime Minister’s Office. “I always keep a map with me at any office,” he said, “to remind me of where we live.”
And where we live is a neighborhood in which he argues you need three components to survive: Unassailable defense, a robust economy, and the knowledge of what we are doing here in the first place.
One expects to hear riffs on security and the economy when sitting with Netanyahu. But what was a bit different this time – what he took obvious pains to stress – was the part about knowing why we are here.
Netanyahu said what has distinguished his government was not only an understanding that Israel needs military and economic prowess, “but also the need to deepen Jewish values, and the understanding and appreciation of our unique heritage.
“We have undertaken a heritage program, which is fantastic,” Netanyahu said eagerly of a NIS 400 million program his government launched to “take biblical sites and the sites of early Zionism and bring them back to life.”
All this, he added, was done to impart to our children a sense of belonging – that this is why we are here, “that we are not in Denmark or in any other country.”
Netanyahu stressed that he has reinstated the Prime Minister’s Bible Study group, and revived the national Bible Quiz for Adults. “This is real; it reflects my own values, what I was brought up with. That I received a deep Jewish education, grounded in Jewish history and grounded in the Bible. This is what I imparted in my children, and something I want to impart to all the children of Israel. It is deep, and people know it. It is not a flag we raise before the elections, it is something that emanates from a wellspring of values that animates me and the Likud as a whole.”
Call it the Bennett effect, the product of Netanyahu’s concern that Naftali Bennett – that upstart head of Bayit Yehudi with the straightforward, right-wing, Jewish- and Zionist-values message – was siphoning off Likud support, and will make it more difficult for him to govern.
Bennett’s campaign theme has been that he just wants to support Netanyahu from the Right, just wants to give him a “third hand” on the wheel. The prime minister’s response: “If you ever drove a car, you know that you have to have two steady hands of one driver on the wheel, and if you start having other people grab the wheel, pretty soon the car overturns.”
Beyond his obvious concern about Bennett, the other element that stood out in this preelection interview – something very telling of where the country is, or of where Netanyahu thinks the country is – is that it was not at all shot through with pie-in-the-sky promises of quick-fix solutions: not in the diplomatic realm, not in Israel’s ties with Obama, and not in the economic sphere.
Rather, sounding downright Churchillian, he said, “There are going to be tough years, but I am confident we can overcome the challenges.”
And, of course, he feels that only he has the steely ability, the fortitude, the leadership aptitude to face those challenges. On Tuesday we will all see to what extend the public agrees.
What follows are excerpts of Netanyahu’s pre-election interview with The Jerusalem Post:
What is your reaction to Jeffrey Goldberg’s column [quoting US President Barack Obama as saying Israel doesn’t know its own best interests]?
Well, I’m sure President Obama understands that only Israel’s sovereign and elected government can determine Israel’s vital national interests, especially its security.
Ultimately, Israel’s interests, and especially its security interests, can be determined only by an elected, sovereign government.
What do the comments say about the direction of ties for the next four years between you and the president?
Well, look, we cooperate on many things, especially on intensified security and intelligence cooperation, and I’m sure that cooperation will continue between America and Israel, especially our common goal of preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons.
I also appreciate the strong support the president gave us during our operation in Gaza and the support he and the Congress have given us on Iron Dome.
But President Obama and I also have our differences, especially on the best way to achieve and advance a defensible peace with the Palestinians. I respect the president and I know that we would both like to see peace achieved in this region, even if we sometimes disagree on the best way to achieve it.
By the way, these differences between American presidents and Israeli prime ministers are not new. They go back to the founding of the state. prime minister [David] Ben-Gurion disagreed with thensecretary of state [George] Marshall and declared the Jewish state in 1948 [despite Marshall’s fierce opposition]. Prime minister [Levi] Eshkol disagreed with president [Lyndon] Johnson when he decided to break the siege of the Arab armies around Israel in the Six Day War.
Prime minister [Yitzhak] Rabin disagreed with president [Gerald] Ford, who demanded that Israel unilaterally withdraw from parts of the Sinai. Prime minister [Menachem] Begin disagreed with president [Ronald] Reagan over the Reagan administration’s peace initiative. Prime minister [Ariel] Sharon disagreed with president [George W.] Bush, who asked him to immediately stop Operation Defensive Shield and withdraw forces.
Yet, despite these differences, decade after decade, the American-Israeli alliance grew progressively stronger. So I believe it can grow even stronger if we face the common challenges ahead. I am confident that President Obama understands that only a sovereign Israeli government can determine what Israel’s interests are.
It is one thing when Tzipi Livni says you are leading Israel to international isolation, but what is the Israeli public supposed to think when the president of the US says it?
I think that standing up for Israel’s vital interests is part of what Israeli leaders must do. It can sometimes involve taking a stand that is not popular, but that is what leadership is for. Leadership is not doing what is popular and what is easy; it’s about sometimes doing what is unpopular and difficult, but vital for the security of our nation.
We live in a world where perception is often more important than reality. Do you feel that the perception that exists in America that you backed Mitt Romney is hurting your relationship with Obama?
I treated candidate Romney exactly as candidate Obama was treated when he came to Israel. Then prime minister Olmert invited him to dinner – and I, as opposition leader, had an extensive discussion with him about the region – and that is exactly what happened with candidate Romney. So there was no preferential treatment.
Do you think the leak to Goldberg had anything to do with payback; that it was Obama’s attempt to try to interfere in our election?
I think that everybody understands that the people of Israel determine who will lead the state, and that only the citizens of Israel can determine what their vital interests are and who will protect those interests.
So you don’t think this was an attempt to interfere?
Well, I think that people appreciate what I just said; I’m sure that includes the president.
Naftali Bennett told us that you would prefer a coalition with Tzipi Livni over him, is that true?
There is so much spin right now. Some say I will make a haredi government, some that I will make a left-wing government. These are all self-serving spins of political parties.
Having said that, when you lie in bed at night and think about a future coalition, what is your dream coalition?
Well, I don’t lie that much in bed at night because I work very long hours. The dream coalition is the one with the broadest possible Likud Beytenu chassis, if you will. Because that is really what determines what drives stability and effectiveness...
If we go the other direction, of fragmentation and sectorial parties, you’re going to have an ineffective government. I know that people say, ‘We’ll strengthen Netanyahu from the Right, we’ll strengthen Netanyahu from the religious side, we’ll strengthen Netanyahu from that side.’ We want our hands on the wheel. If you ever drove a car, you know that you have to have two steady hands of one driver on the wheel, and if you start having other people grab the wheel, pretty soon the car overturns.
We want to continue in the stable, solid direction of improving Israel’s capabilities, its military prowess and ensure the deepest foundation of education, especially Jewish education.
When one watches the election ads, it’s tough to escape the feeling that Bennett is the largest threat to Likud, and one of the attacks on Bennett is that his is an extremist party. Isn’t it a bit disingenuous of the Likud, with Moshe Feiglin on its list, accusing Bennett’s party of being extremist?
I think everybody knows what the Likud list consists of. And to be honest, I think Feiglin is an exception. All our people support military service, reject military disobedience and oppose vehemently separation of woman. We have very clear values.
There are many things we share with other parties, including Bayit Yehudi. There are some things we don’t share, and I think during the election it is important to highlight the differences.
We don’t hide who our candidates are; they are picked apart with almost boring regularity. Yet I think it’s important to know when you are voting for other parties who you are voting for, and then make the decision.
You know Bennett very well – you worked with him. In your mind, is he an extremist?
I’m not rating anyone, and I am not disqualifying anyone. But I think it’s important for people to realize that the only way we can lead the country is to have a very strong ruling party… You need a prime minister that can focus on the main issues, and that can’t be done if you have to attend the needs of sectorial parties...
When you look at the region – and you often explain dramatically how dangerous it is – do you see any ray of hope out there, and ray of light?
I think over time the aspirations for freedom and the technology for freedom will fuse. I think, in historical perspective, it will be very hard to maintain these enclosed, backward-looking Islamist theocracies. I think they will simply not be able to provide the needs of the people with economic growth that can only be achieved by freedom and initiative. I think ultimately this trend toward Medievalism will give way to the modern.
But that may take a long time. I can see the mountaintop, but there are deep ravines between us and the crests of those mountains, and we’d better make sure that we don’t fall into the ravines. I always gaze into the future, but my feet are firmly on the ground and I look very carefully at the next step that we have to take to make sure that we don’t fall off the cliff.
But in the immediate future, is there any ray of light?
There are going to be tough years, but I am confident we can overcome these challenges. We have overcome extraordinary challenges. The state of Israel is immeasurably stronger than it was at its inception.
We’ve become a technological world power, we are changing our education system and our children now are clearly at a different place. We have unbelievable innovation, both in industry and in our military, and the Israeli economy is surpassing just about every advanced economy in the West.
It doesn’t mean we don’t have problems, but it does mean we can create and achieve results that astound the world. We are even number two in life expectancy for men, as I read today. That is a reflection of the changes...
The hope comes from the Jewish genius; the hope comes from the heart of the nation that is committed to overcoming the difficulties and ensuring the Jewish future, for ourselves and for our children.
That is where the hope comes from. It doesn’t come from shutting your eyes; it comes from keeping your eyes open, looking at the reality as it is and creating the bulwark of defense and the unique capabilities of the Jewish State.
King Abdullah gave an interview yesterday in which he said that after the election, the Europeans will come with a new initiative. Do you know anything about that? Do you plan to put anything of your own on the table?
I’m sure there will be many initiatives, and certainly we’ll have an important task in trying to tell the truth to the world: that the Palestinian problem is neither the core of the instability in the Middle East (people actually believed that until the Arab Spring; I think they’re a little wiser now), nor that the question of settlements is the core of the Palestinian-Israel conflict. The core of the conflict is the persistent refusal of the Palestinians to recognize the Jewish state in any boundary.
Can Israel withstand the pressure on the settlements? Can we build in east Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim with the Europeans saying, ‘If you do we might boycott you’?
I think that many recognize that while there are differences inside Israel, there is a common acceptance that the so-called settlement blocs will remain part of Israel in any settlement, and that’s where the majority of construction is taking place.
But the Europeans are not saying that.
Some of them are not saying that, it’s true. But I think that there is recognition that ultimately there has to be a real and fair solution, and that certainly doesn’t include driving out hundreds of thousands of Jews who live in the suburbs of Jerusalem, and in the suburbs of Tel Aviv in the Ariel bloc. I think that is unrealistic.
There is an attempt to escape this simple reality, and we will have to get the world to focus on the real issues, the real problem – and to resist attempts to impose a solution that would deprive Israel of its security and fundamental national interest. A peace that you can’t defend will not exist; will not last for a second.
President Shimon Peres says PA President Abbas is a real potential peace partner, while former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman says he’s not. Where do you stand?
Well, so far he hasn’t been because he’s avoided negotiations. He’s run away from negotiations for the last four years. He’s piled on precondition upon precondition.
He went to the UN for a unilateral resolution, which is a fundamental breach of the Oslo Accords. He embraced Hamas. If he changes that and comes back to the table without preconditions, he’ll find me there, if I’m elected prime minister.
Would you consider alternative ideas to the two-state solution?
I don’t think it is a good idea for the Jewish state [for the Palestinians to be incorporated as citizens of Israel]. On the other hand, I don’t shut my eyes, the way some suggest, and say ‘Let’s just get out and sign a treaty – that will protect us.’ No, peace treaties don’t protect us; security protects us. And what protects us is the ability to understand that you need two things: You need a change in the Palestinian attitude toward the Jewish state so they recognize that if they want a Palestinian state, they will have to accept the idea of a Jewish state as the nation state of the Jewish people and to end the conflict with us once and for all. And the second thing is to recognize that even if the [Palestinian] leadership accepts that [a Jewish state and end to conflict], you can’t be guaranteed that this will take root in the general public. They will have to change the way they educate their children, and the national propaganda that they spew forth in their state-controlled press.
Equally, even if that happens, you have to assure yourself against the possibility that there will be a change of regime or change of policy in the Palestinian areas. And that is why you need very, very solid security arrangements that protect Israel.
These are measures that were not present in Gaza. We walked out and Hamas walked in, which means Iran walked in. I’m not going to have that replicated.
There are two positions that I think are important. We don’t want a binational state, we don’t want to govern the Palestinians.
But at the same time, we don’t want them to govern us or threaten our existence by irresponsible agreements that are made without a realistic appreciation of the Islamist tide that is sweeping the region and the speed in which Israel can move from relative strength to great vulnerability because we didn’t take care of our vital security needs – because we trusted a peace of paper. That’s not where I’ve been and that’s not where I’m going to be.
I think the people of Israel know that they can rely on me to stand on our vital national interests, even when it’s hard – and it’s not going to be easy.
I don’t think there is anyone better to stand on these issues and to navigate the shoals of the great international river that is flowing around us.
A recent US think tank report that said Iran could produce enough weaponsgrade uranium for a bomb by mid-2014 backs up what you have been saying. What is your timetable now on Iran?
The timetable depends on Iran. I’ve laid out a clear red line; so far, Iran has not crossed it. The question of the timetable depends on their decision, whether they intend to move forward with further enrichment to accelerate enough weapons–grade uranium for the first bomb. So far they haven’t crossed the line, but it is their decision.
You have a NIS 40 billion deficit. It needs to be dealt with. How?
I don’t want to raise taxes, and I don’t see any reason to do so. And, if necessary, I would always prefer cutting back on government spending rather than raising taxes; that has always been my natural inclination... There is always room for government efficiency. Believe me, government offices are not wiry thin – they have a lot of excess fat.
Can you cut the defense budget?
Defense is a place where you can always achieve greater efficiency, but it is also a place that is continuously a challenge. It is not something that you address lightly.
People who say, ‘Let’s cut defense’ without thinking about the challenges we face should look at the map. I always keep a map with me at any office – here at my Tel Aviv office, at the Prime Minister’s Residence, there is a map to remind me of where we live.
We have the Iranian nuclear threat, we have chemical weapons in Syria, we have rockets and missiles with Hamas and Hezbollah and we have terrorist infiltrators from the Sinai. I have spent considerable amounts to address those threats.
Are there places to save in the army and the Defense Ministry?
You bet. But there are also places to spend. We have to figure out the right mix. Some of the threats are not as acute as they once were. For instance, the Syrian army is not a threat anymore; Egypt less so right now than in the past because of its economic problems.
Some of the threats have been reduced, at least momentarily. Others have been increased. We live in a missile age; we have to recognize that. We have offensive capacities against these threats, and we have proven defensive capacity. But they require expenditure.
Some of the political parties have made extraordinary statements – not about containing the deficit, but about increasing spending in such a way that the Israeli economy would collapse, or reach the state of Spain or Greece. I have great respect for these countries, but I think we manage our economies better. Ultimately, we live here because of the ability to stay strong, and that strength is a combination of military, economic and cultural strength that has given the Jewish people the power to perform a miracle. Coming back to this land, rebuilding our sovereignty is – I suppose – nothing short of miraculous in a historical perspective. But it is not a miracle. It is something that is done by deliberate acts of a people that can prioritize and put its national needs in the right order.
I think we have shown we can do that. I’m not sure that the public discourse about those needs are always measured, or always accurate. I think we should remember at all times what neighborhood we live in, and what we need to remain strong while navigating in a very difficult international environment that requires a lot of experience and leadership. I think we have shown that we have both.