PM to 'Post': Clear lines must be set on Iran

Netanyahu sits down with the 'Post' and discusses Iran, red lines, Mideast unrest and – last but definitely not least – early elections.

Netanyahu and Herb Keinon 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Netanyahu and Herb Keinon 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Early elections in Israel are more likely in the near future than an Israeli attack on Iran.
That, at least, is the impression one can easily and reasonably take away from a nearly hour-long conversation with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Not because Netanyahu says so, of course not. Ask him whether Israel will take action, or if it could take action, or if he would take action without US support, and you will get a pat non-reply. Those questions are not even worth asking.
No, the feeling that elections are a higher probability than a nighttime bombing raid on the Fordow enrichment plant comes from nuances in his answers to other questions – about red lines vs red lights, about whom he sees as his most formidable political challenger, about whether he is intervening in the US elections.
The last charge, that he is manufacturing a crisis with the US administration just 50 days before the US elections to tip the scales toward Republican candidate Mitt Romney, annoys him. “Completely groundless,” he says, emphatically.
Yet it is a charge gaining currency in the US media.
Netanyahu must be clashing publicly with the administration because he wants Romney to win, this argument runs. It’s all about the elections.
It may be about the elections, but it is about the Israeli elections, not the American ones. Netanyahu is no less astute than those in the US media saying he is taking an enormous gamble on Romney winning in November. Rest assured, the prime minister is fully aware that if he is perceived as backing Romney, yet US President Barack Obama wins reelection, then Israel will lose.
No, that is not what his statements such as “those in the international community who refuse to put red lines in front of Iran, don’t have a moral right to put red lights in front of Israel” are about.
Those words are not meant for American ears, but Israeli ones; not for pro-Israel voters in the US, but Israeli voters in Israel. It’s not about them, but about us.
Netanyahu’s interview with The Jerusalem Post Wednesday night in his office is peppered with statements about standing up for what he believes in, saying what needs to be said regardless of whether the world agrees, having the courage to say “white” when the whole world says “black.”
This is a currency he seems to believe plays very well with the Israeli electorate. And if immediate history is a judge, he has what to lean on. When Obama pushed Netanyahu hard on the settlement issue back in 2009, apparently believing those in the White House and in Kadima who said the Israeli electorate would back the US president rather than the prime minister in a Jerusalem-Washington spat, the public backed Netanyahu.
When Netanyahu picked a public fight with Obama in May 2011 over the president’s call for a return to the 1967 lines, with agreed upon land swaps, he came home to a significant bounce in the polls.
Israelis like their leaders to stand up for what they believe in, and Netanyahu – throughout the interview – emphasized that is something he consistently does.
Furthermore, by not dismissing out of hand comments by a Likud official that elections could be held early next year, Netanyahu signaled he is ready for elections, which have to be held in any event by November 2013. He wouldn’t say whom he saw as his most formidable challenger, but it was clear in the answer he gave that focused on his own years of experience that he is more concerned about Shelly Yacimovich and Yair Lapid, than about Shaul Moraz or Ehud Olmert.
“All that I can say to those who aspire to this job is accumulate some experience — take the time, it would serve you well,” he remarked, obviously a comment aimed at either Olmert or Mofaz.
And as far as the perpetually discussed attack on Iran is concerned, the prime minister’s explanatory comments about setting red lines are telling. He put the need to place red lines on Iran on a continuum that stretches back nearly two decades.
Netanyahu recalled that he first sounded the alarm about a nuclear Iran 16 years ago, when few others were doing so, and then they joined in. He mentioned that he started talking about the need for economic sanctions against Iran when no one else was on board, and others joined in. And now, he said, we are in the “red lines phase.”
“I hope others will join,” he said. “It takes time to persuade people of the wisdom of this policy.”
That comment – that reference to taking time, the need for time to convince others – does not sound like a leader on the brink of precipitous action.
Iran, obviously and understandably, is very much on Netanyahu’s mind.
But so too are new elections, at least that is what it sounds like when listening closely to his words. I left the Prime Minister’s Office four days ago with a distinct sense that the latter was much more in the immediate offing than the former.
What follows are excerpts of Netanyahu’s Rosh Hashana interview with the Post:
Congressman Mike Rogers [R-Michigan] gave an interview recently and said he walked out of a meeting a few weeks ago between you and US Ambassador Dan Shapiro with a sense that you were at wit’s end over American policy toward Iran. Are you?
No, I am not at wit’s end. I believe we have to stop Iran, I believe we can stop Iran, and I think certain things are needed to do that. One of them is setting clear, designated limits to Iran’s nuclear weapons programs activities. I think that has not yet been done, but I am an old hand at this.
I started speaking about the Iranian threat 16 years ago. If I was not a lone voice then, I was one of the few, and then others joined. And then I started speaking about the need for economic sanctions against Iran. I wasn’t the only voice, but I was one of the few. Now I speak about red lines for Iran. So far I am one of the few; I hope others will join.
It takes time to persuade people of the wisdom of this policy.
Do you believe President Obama when he says he will prevent the Iranians from getting nuclear weapons?
I have no doubt that this is the goal of the United States. I think that our common responsibility is to make sure that goal is achieved in practice.
I have no doubt this is American policy, but there are two things I would add. First, Israel and the US have different vulnerabilities; and second, that Israel and the US have different capabilities.
Click here for full Jpost coverage of the Iranian threat
Click here for full Jpost coverage of the Iranian threat
I would add a third point: Israel must reserve the right to defend itself by itself against any threat. These are things understood by both countries.
But I think that if the international community wants to stop Iran it should recognize squarely that Iran has been moving forward without interruption, despite the heavy economic sanctions, in advancing its nuclear weapons program. And I think there should be clear red lines drawn so that Iran understands the consequences of crossing them. So far that has not been done.
Some say your statement about those who do not put red lines in front of Iran having no moral authority to place a red light in front of Israel was – to put it mildly – not constructive, and that you are damaging the strong Israeli-US relationship, which is this country’s biggest strategic asset. Is it necessary to put this so much out there in the public?
I disagree. First of all, I was speaking about the international community. Secondly, I disagree.
I think that when Israel stands up for what is right, and for what is important and vital for its security, people respect that, especially our friend and ally the United Sates of America.
They understand that the prime minister of Israel sometimes has to speak up for things that are seen in a different perspective from Washington. Not because Washington harbors anything but friendship for Israel, but because it is 3,000 miles away, it is much bigger and far less vulnerable. We have a duty, responsibility and a right to sound the alarm.
But when you do it so closely to the US elections, doesn’t it create a perception that you are trying to create a crisis because of the elections?
No. It has nothing to do with the American elections. Because the Iranian nuclear program doesn’t care about the American political calendar.
If the centrifuges stop miraculously, if they stop preparing enriched uranium to make atomic bombs, then I suppose I wouldn’t have to speak out. But the Iranian nuclear program proceeds unabated and they don’t care about the internal American political calendar. For me this is a policy issue, a security issue, and not a political issue.
But is the perception among some that it is somehow related to the elections troublesome to you? Do you think this could be problematic for Israel in the future?
I think it is completely groundless. I welcome bipartisan support. I welcome support for Israel and for its security from any corner, from any country.People from President Shimon Peres on down through Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as well as various American officials, talk about how the intelligence and security cooperation with the US is unprecedented, has never been better. Do you agree with that? Is that true?
We have very close cooperation, and it is very important. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have different perspectives. It is only natural that we do. And when we have a difference of views we don’t have to sweep them under the rug. I believe there has to be clear limits drawn to Iran’s advance toward nuclear weapons, and that is not something I intend to be quiet about.
When you talk about red lines, you referred to what Canada did in cutting ties with Iran as a red line. I’m confused by what you mean by red lines. Is it cutting ties? A deadline? A date? A trigger?
There is a difference between a deadline that deals with time, and a red line that deals with process, with the actual advance in the nuclear program. I think the question is when the crucial stage is passed beyond which you will be hard pressed to stop Iran from assembling a nuclear bomb.
So is a red line saying that if they take a specific action they will be met with an immediate response?
I’ll tell you what a red line is: A red line is something that Iran knows it cannot cross or it will suffer the consequences. Believe me, when they see it [the red line], they will stop.
But why can’t you say it publicly?
I didn’t say that I won’t say it publicly.... I'm just saying that right now the important thing is to establish the need for this in principle. Working it out in detail is something we don’t necessarily share right now with the public.
I have heard some European diplomats say that had you been more forthcoming toward the Palestinians you would have been able to get more world support right now when you are out in front on Iran?
C’mon. There are many ways to explain away inactivity, and that is one of them.
So it would not have helped? You don’t see any linkage?
Look, we are facing a regime that threatens the annihilation of the Jewish state. It calls for genocide; it comes out with the worst anti-Semitic statements in half a century; it threatens to dominate the entire world. The world. Not merely the Middle East, North Africa or Europe, but the world. It’s building nuclear weapons to that effect, okay.
You are now subordinating the battle against this threat to the future of the world to whether the Palestinian leader agrees or does not agree to go a few kilometers from Ramallah to Jerusalem, or that I go from here to there [for talks]. Let’s put things in perspective.
I know there are many diplomats whose sense of history goes back to breakfast, but this doesn’t even get to breakfast. It is not a serious argument.
First, because the Iranian threat is monumentally important on its own; and secondly, because those diplomats surely know how many times we tried again and again to engage Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] in the peace talks. I have offered to meet him with no conditions.
I think people by now, at least those who have access to the information that these governments have, know that the reason we have not had progress in the talks is because we haven’t had talks. And the reason why we have not had talks is not because of Israel, but because of the Palestinian refusal to conduct them.
You’ve made that clear, and have said Abbas is putting obstacles in the way of negotiations, and also waging a campaign to delegitimize Israel around the world. But you stop short of doing what Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has done and say it is time for him to go. Why?
Because I think the question is, what will replace him? You know the world is a world of alternatives... I think that right now with the political and economic instability that you see in the Palestinian Authority areas you might get what you got in Gaza, and that is Hamas.
We can be frustrated with the PA, but we don’t act on frustration, we act on a sober calculation of our national interest.
That is why I’ve instructed our government to advance funds that will go to the PA in a few weeks. Because I don’t think anyone looking at this rationally would want an economic collapse that would lead to a takeover of Iran’s proxy in the suburbs of Jerusalem. That is not something that I as prime minister would want to do. So I act on what I believe are the vital interests of the Jewish state, when it is popular, and when it is not.
When you look at the mini-economic intifada in the PA now, what are the risks and what are the possibilities. Are there possibilities? Could it lead to something better? What do you think of the record so far in the Arab world? Do you think it has improved conditions, or not?
You could say that the jury is out, in several cases. But it doesn’t look particularly promising, given the tragedies we saw today in Libya and the violence in Cairo.
When you made the decision this week to advance NIS 250 million in tax payment revenue to the PA, was there any problem justifying that in light of the fact that they pay NIS 44m. a month in stipends to terrorists sitting in jails and to the family of suicide bombers?
Yes. That is something that should be addressed to the Palestinian Authority. We are not passing the money to the families. We are passing it to the PA.We sent them very clear messages on this point.
Right now there is a point of crisis. In life, certainly in public life and when you head a country as complex and as challenging as Israel, you have to continuously make the distinction between what is central and what is peripheral. And that can change. Every day we make these decisions.
None of them are easy. If they were easy, you would not need leaders. Leaders are here to make the decisions that are hard; hard in the economic field, hard in the security field, hard in the political field. That is what leadership is all about.
You talk about leadership; Egypt right now has a new leader. Have you had contact with him?
Not directly. We have many contacts with the Egyptian government, primarily through our military contacts, and those have been kept intact. Obviously our number one priority is the maintenance of our peace treaty.
We are very much concerned about what is developing in Sinai. We made it clear to our American friends and to the Egyptian government. I think a stable Sinai is as much an interest of Egypt as it is of Israel, but it is their responsibility to police it.
Is the first few months of President Morsy’s rule in Egypt better or worse than you anticipated?
 He has not even been willing yet to utter the word “Israel” in public. I think Egypt has to decide the depth of its commitment to the peace treaty. We are deeply committed to it, I hope they will be too.
Turning to Syria, what lessons do you take from the world’s impotence there, and do you think the West should at this time be actively arming the opposition?
I am not sure that as the prime minister of Israel it would help for me to respond to that, because I am not sure it would help the very people you want to help.
Obviously what is going on there is a tragedy of savage proportions.I think that our concern is twofold. What kind of state will there be in Syria in the long term? What kind of regime? What kind of structure? Will it be secular and moderate, or another militant Islamic regime hostile to Israel. That is an important question, obviously.
Will Iran continue to have dominance in that country, as it does now with its proxy Hezbollah, assisting in the murder of Syrian civilians every day.
And no less important is what happens in the seamline between this Syria and the new Syria. And most particularly, what will happen to the 50 chemical weapons sites that are there that could fall into the hands of Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations.
These are issues of great concern to us, to the countries bordering Syria, and to the US and European counties. We are discussing this with the US and others.
Is Turkey among the others?
Well, we are not taking about that directly with Turkey, but the fact that you mentioned it says to you that we have common interests. We both have a border with Syria, and I am sure we both want to see a stable and peaceful Syria. That is a common interest.
There are other common interests that come to mind. I think it is in our common interest to find a way to be able to stop, to arrest, the slide in our relationship and resume a fruitful dialogue.
Obviously there is an obstacle. We are aware of it, they are aware of it, we haven’t yet found a way to overcome it, but perhaps we will. I would certainly welcome such a development.
Liberman the other day said that one thing he could live with would be the type of formula that the Americans used in apologizing to Pakistan for the accidental killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers, namely, “We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military.” Is that a formula in play? Is that something being considered?
It is one of them. Will they [Ankara] give up on their demand to lift the blockade of Gaza? Have they moved at all? I am not sure it is good to get into these details, and I don’t have any news to communicate to you. But I do think that looking at the turbulence in our region in the last year, there can be – there is – a common desire to reestablish, or to help reestablish, stability. And I think that may or may not be enough to guide us to a resumption in relations. We shall see. We shall try and we shall see.
Quick question about politics. On the way over here I heard a report about a Likud official saying there could be elections at the beginning of next year.
Look, my government now is completing its fourth year in office. Israel is an island of stability in a very, very wide region.
But this has also been an island of political stability. And we have been able to maintain the stability of the economy, to have virtually unmatched economic growth. To have an increase of 330,000 jobs – and a relatively low unemployment – the last figure was 6.5 percent when the European average is over 11%, in some countries it is 25% percent.
We’ve been able to have strong security for the last four years, and the number of Israelis killed has gone down precipitously, even though every life lost is a tragedy. We have been able to bring about an education revolution, starting with free education from the age of three, up to the reforms we made in the university. We made a revolution in our health system, added 1,000 [hospital] beds that have not be added in a decade. Added a new medical school in Safed. Give free dental care to children. We are building infrastructure that is revolutionizing the country – highways, railways, interchanges.
This is an amazing achievement given the fact that we have been doing it in the last four years of the greatest economic convulsion in nearly a century, and in a regional turbulence that has not been seen in 80 years.
We have enormous challenges, we have enormous achievements. We have to overcome the challenges and continue the achievements. Can we do this by [the government] going up to November 2013? I hope so, that would be my preference.
But it does not only depend on me. It depends on the demands the coalition partners put into the budget. Again, I hope we continue.
Who is your most formidable challenger: Shaul Mofaz? Ehud Olmert? Shelly Yacimovich? Yair Lapid? Who is it?
You know, I am not going to rank these people. Each has their own qualities and their own experiences. But let me tell you something about my experience.I came into my first term in office as the youngest prime minister. I was 46 years old. But I had about 14 years experience before that. I was deputy chief of mission in Washington, I was Israel ambassador at the UN, I was deputy foreign minister, I had been the leader of the opposition, aside from having experience in business and military, and still I find that my second term in office has been enormously helped by the experience I accumulated during my first term in office, and afterwards.
Experience counts. It is a tremendous help in governing this country, and in ensuring its vital interests. All that I can say to those who aspire to this job is accumulate some experience — take the time, it would serve you well.
One last question – the High Holy Days question, the Oprah Winfrey question. Jews will be going to synagogue in a few days and say “Ashamnu” [“We have been guilty”], “Bagadnu” [“We have betrayed”], “Gazalnu” [“We have stolen”].
Oprah Winfrey asked that?
What do you need to ask forgiveness for as prime minister of Israel?
Well, on the personal level, that I have not spent as much time with my wife and children as I would like. And that is really heart-felt. The more time I spend with them, the better I feel. The better I am prepared. I recharge my batteries.
My sons always tell me what is happening with the young people. They say, “Abba, we are telling you what it is really like.” And they do.
And secondly, on the national level, the main regret I have is that we have not yet stopped Iran. We have done a lot, but we have not yet achieved that goal. When you interview me next year, I hope I can give you a different answer.