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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The first words that Likud Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu said when he sat down to talk to The Jerusalem Post in his office at the Likud's Tel Aviv headquarters on Tuesday were: "The battle is on."
Netanyahu was talking about the vote in the Likud Central Committee the following day that transferred the power to select the Likud's MKs from the central committee to the party membership.
But he just as easily could have been talking about the larger battle ahead of the March 28 election, or perhaps the interview itself. Netanyahu, who is known around the world for being one of Israel's best spokesmen, sees the press as his main adversary in the race.
For weeks, he has been trying to wake up the public to the danger posed by Hamas and the inability of Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Kadima cohorts to handle it.
He has traveled to isolated hilltops overlooking the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, the Jordan Valley and Ben-Gurion International Airport and shouted that such strategic locations were in danger, but received little play in the Hebrew press.
The impact of years of built up frustration with the media were evident in the interview when even easy, "softball" questions were met with a two-sentence disparaging response followed by a sermon about Hamas. Even when asked about his personal feelings after being wrongly accused of being corrupt, he used the questions to highlight his economic successes rather than answer them directly.
Luckily for Netanyahu, the nightly television broadcasts of election commercials start on Tuesday, and the Likud - by virtue of the seats it has in the Knesset - will have significantly more time than any other party to speak on every network, unfiltered by the press, directly to the viewers at home.
With nearly 100 minutes of TV and nearly 200 minutes of radio in prime time at his disposal, Netanyahu hopes his messages will reach the public clearly and allow him to come from behind to win the election as he did in 1996.
But winning the support of the 5,014,622 eligible voters is a much tougher task than convincing 3,000 central committee members. With the central committee, he used what he called "forceful persuasion" to get the Likud activists to abdicate their power on Wednesday night.
He told the central committee members that the public's dislike for them required them to disarm themselves ahead of the election. And just in case they were still considering rebelling against him, he made sure that the vote would not be held by secret ballot.
Netanyahu won the battle against the central committee, but now he must turn to the fight over public opinion. It's a war he has to win to ensure his own political survival, and he no longer has the central committee to blame if he does not succeed.
"Winning" in this case does not mean forming the next government but receiving the magic number of 20 mandates on March 28. If he doesn't, Netanyahu's Likud rival, Silvan Shalom, and hundreds of angry central committee members will immediately unsheath their swords and attempt to overthrow him. The people closest to Shalom do not hide their intentions to "send Netanyahu back to the United States."
But if Netanyahu significantly exceeds expectations, not only will he retain the reins over the Likud, he could return to the status he enjoyed under Sharon as a presumed future prime minister.
"I intend to achieve surprising results in these elections, and with God's help and luck, we might even form the next government," Netanyahu told the Post on Thursday in a brief second conversation in the wake of his victory in the central committee. "I intend to lead the Likud for many years to come, and this could only be done with this crucial reform. Without it, the party could have slipped into irrelevance, even though the public agrees with our policies."
What's your prediction for March 28?
I don't make predictions. I work for results. The result I am working for is a strong Israel that can ward off the dangers it faces and give it a future of hope, security and prosperity to the people. That's what we give to the people in this election. I am sure the results will be considerably better than they are now. I won't engage in numbers. I will engage in principles.
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert doesn't see Hamas as a strategic threat and I do and so do all the military officials. How can you not see it that a Hamas allied with Iran and committed to Israel's destruction is a threat to Israel? We can ward off this threat. We can and need to build an iron wall to protect our country. We have to stop giving land to Hamas and to be clear that we will not give up an inch in the Jordan Valley.
These are clear policies that produced the great drop in terror in the years of the Likud government that I led. It was the lowest level of terror in last 10 years. It wasn't because Arafat became a Zionist. It's because we had a low tolerance and took strong actions, threatening to expel Arafat and the PA and shut out the lights in Beirut. It stopped the rockets for three years and there were only three terrorist attacks in three years.
This is a policy that produces security and hope. It is not hope that is based on illusion. It is hope that is based on a correct perception of reality and taking the necessary actions to ensure our security.
This is what leaders have to do. They don't have to engage in falsifying reality, lulling the people to sleep and acting like an ostrich. An ostrich always has quiet and peace. Its head is in the sand and it can't hear the predators in the bush. We can't behave like ostriches when there is a clear and present danger. We can't waffle on giving the Palestinians money. This zigzagging is not what we need. Israel will prosper and thrive based on strength, and this is what the Likud brings to the elections.
Why haven't your warnings led to you going up in the polls?
Give it time. There is still a month left. I have no doubt that the people will wake up. Reality will force them to wake up. I have no doubt about it. Some are engaged in denial, some have are engaged in retreat from confronting reality in the face, but more and more people are saying we need strong leadership. There has been a movement in opinion that has translated to a modest gain in votes from 10 to almost double.
It remains to be seen what will happen when the campaign is in the election commercials in the closing month. We will make our case in radio and TV as best as we can to make people understand that there is a choice.
There is no center in the campaign. Peres said it best when he said there was no difference between Kadima and Labor. The voters will understand that they have a choice between the policies of Kadima and the Left or the policies of the nationalist camp led by Likud. That is really the choice in this election. Reality will hit people in the face. Reality doesn't sit and wait for political spins. You can spin politics for only so long before reality catches up.
Do you ever regret that you might have missed out on being prime minister because you quit the government? There might not have been a split in the Likud, Kadima might no have been formed and you might have defeated Olmert and become Likud leader and prime minister.
It's futile to engage in retrospective speculation. At any point in time you have to make a decision that is principled, and I think it was correct. I decided that due to unilateral disengagement Hamas would be strengthened, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas would be destroyed politically and weapons would flow into Gaza and I was right.
Now we have a choice of whether to continue this policy and further strengthen Hamas. We know how to create an international front. What is happening now reflects a total lack of competence in the international arena. We have that competence. We know what to do with security to force the contraction of Hamas, not its expansion.
Iran can threaten us. My policy is to prevent Iran from obtaining weapons. It must not happen. One doesn't have to elaborate. Hamas allied with Iran is a much greater threat to Israel. It's not the same old militants with green keffiyehs - who were dangerous enough. It's the possibility that they can expand eastward and westward and create a second Iran. People understand the threat even though the government says it's not a threat.
Do you believe Olmert when he said that Sharon personally told him that he considered him his successor?
I don't know. It's irrelevant It's not a dynastic system. People choose who leads them. Candidates make all sorts of claims.
Why is the central committee vote so important?
It is part of the reform process I enacted across the board when I was prime minister and finance minister. When I was prime minister, you couldn't take more than $1,000 out of the country. We used to be a Third-World country. People thought economic reforms weren't possible.
When I took over the Likud, I continued that policy of seeking reforms. The first thing I did was to pass in the central committee a decision that criminal elements will be removed from all institutions of the party. I am seeking a bigger, more open, more democratic Likud. I believe that the bigger the voter body, the better the process. I want to move away from the power of one or 3000.
I chose to bring it up now deliberately, not only because I feel it will strengthen the Likud but because the only time, the best time for me to have a chance to pass it is now. I can't force anyone but I can use forceful persuasion. A majority of Likud members understood that the public wants an open party.
Let's say you won the election. What coalition would you build? Would you join with Labor to block a Kadima coalition? Do you think it's possible to get enough of the Right together to bloc Kadima from forming a coalition without Labor?
We will form a coalition with whoever shares our policy guidelines. Labor doesn't. It doesn't seem to be practical. Votes will move. One cannot make a flat prediction but there's uneasiness about Kadima. People understand that it's a temporary bubble. It's not going to be around. It's an assortment of people put together with a PR gloss. No one knows how they will lead the country toward prosperity and security. When people look at policies, they begin to gravitate to Likud because we have a proven record.
How do you respond to Benny Elon, who says that it would be easier to build a new alternative on the Right around his party than rebuild the Likud after the crisis in the party caused by disengagement?
People understand that the party split over a difference of opinion over policy. I don't know what Sharon would have done in the face of the rise of Hamas. I warned him it would happen if we didn't strengthen our hold on the Jordan Valley and finish the fence on the original route that we decided in the government around the settlement blocs. I said this would minimize the damage of the unilateral withdrawal by having it appear as a redrawing of lines along the national interest.
I don't know what Sharon would have done had he seen the rise of Hamas, but one of the last things he said was that he would not let Hamas vote in Jerusalem. Olmert changed the decision, brought the fence closer to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway and applied excessive power to nine houses and too little power to rockets raining.
When this happened when I was prime minister, I responded harshly and showed them that I would not tolerate this. It comes from inside. I told Arafat, if you persist in sending suicide bombers, you will be out of here. He knew I would face up to the entire world if necessary. You have to have a sense of outrage that your children are being rocketed. What country would tolerate this?
All deterrence is based on disproportionate response. You never just give. Ever. I was a very tough negotiator when we had a partner. What is the policy we need? You want to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Continuing disengagement is rewarding bad behavior, it's saying to the terrorists you will gain ground and more land. When you reward the terror by giving more land, you tell them they can get away with attacking Israel.
You said we had a partner. Was there someone to negotiate with?
I think bringing in Arafat and his gang was a great mistake and I said so. But since we inherited an agreement, I said I would insist that they prove they were partners by keeping them to their commitments. When they stopped the terror, they got a little. When he stopped abiding, I stopped my end of the bargain. This was a correct policy.
We have to disabuse the Palestinians of the fantasy that Hamas puts before their faces - that it is a matter of time before the superior Muslim will overcomes the inferior Jewish will and we will be driven out. I believe in our people. It's bad when the people don't believe in the leaders but it's worse when they don't believe in the people. Olmert said in New York before he became prime minister that the people are tired of fighting. I have a different view of the people. I think the people have shown great strength.
You have outlined your guidelines for defensible borders. What will you say to the thousands of Jews on the other side of the fence who would have to leave their homes according to your plan?
It's not happening right now. I would move anyone now when we are facing the greatest threat we have faced in decades. If we come to office, we will not give Hamas an inch or a penny. You do not court a regime that seeks to destroy you. But we would accommodate the humanitarian needs of the population.
Is it personally frustrating that the vast majority of the population appears to be backing erroneous policies?
It's happened before during Oslo. When I launched my economic recovery plan, I was in the clear minority. Leaders aren't tested by whether they follow the popular fashion of the times but whether they are willing to chart out a course that will give people a better future no matter how unpopular it will appear at the time. No, I don't take it personally.
Do you think there is something about you that people don't like?
People embrace me when I follow economic policies they agree with, they talk about my maturation, and then the minute they find that I disagree with their political views, they begin to disparage my personality, so I am used to it. We all have personal shortcomings. But I don't think this guides the presentation of my character or my policies. I don't ask journalists to agree with my policies but I expect a fair hearing.
How frustrating is it for you personally to see the way that you are portrayed as corrupt?
That is something that can drive me to distraction. I have spent over 20 years in public life, close to 30, and I have never been implicated in anything that involves material interest. When I was prime minister and finance minister, I made momentous economic decisions. No one has ever accused me of personal interests in any of this. As finance minister, I appointed people known for being straight arrows and we did great reforms. For instance, I enacted a requirement of bidding for imports.
What do you think of the poll that said that 60 percent of the population considered you corrupt?
If you want to talk about something frustrating, that is it. I took the necessary, bold decisions. I am working now to make the Likud more clean and transparent. I tried unsuccessfully to get my hands on a major source of government corruption: the allocation of land and zoning. That's the biggest pit of corruption. I asked to be put in charge of the Israel Lands Authority. I was refused. There are major reforms that have to be made to stop the situation of 93% of government land being held by the bureaucracy.
What do you think about complaints inside the Likud that you are spending NIS 80,000 on a PR consultant [Gil Samsonov]. Wouldn't that money be better spent on the organizational campaign to help get Likudniks out to vote?
The man he replaced (Eyal Arad) made six times as much. We hear that complaint in every campaign. It's not worth endless discussion. We have to compete with a press that is largely unfavorable.
How would you judge the performance of Tzipi Livni as foreign minister and her English?
I think the issue isn't the fluency of language but the clarity of thought. It's a confused government that doesn't have the right policies. The message from the government is vacillating and weak. You can't be clear cut if you're not persuaded yourself.
Why did you decide to form an Anglo division? What are Anglo issues and why is it important to attract Anglo voters?
I don't know if there are Anglo issues. We all have the same issues of wanting the country to prosper and survive. The Anglo voters understand the economic reforms. They also understand coming from the outside that at the end of day, it's our spirit and our values that are the bedrock of this country. They didn't come here by accident. They are here because of a difficult choice that they made based on their Jewish and Zionist values. It's true of all of us. We won't be here if we don't deepen our Jewish and historical roots to this country.