“This is not the first time that op-eds in The New York Times have been wrong,” presumptive prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Saudi-affiliated Arab network Al Arabiya on Thursday.
Netanyahu’s comment came to a question about a Times op-ed in June arguing that Joe Biden might be the last pro-Israel Democratic US president. His remarks came before Saturday’s Times editorial that said the upcoming Netanyahu government was “a significant threat to the future of Israel – its direction, its security and even the idea of a Jewish homeland.”
Netanyahu’s interview with Al Arabiya was one of three that were broadcast or published late last week – the other two being to America’s National Public Radio and the Washington Examiner news outlet – and are among several that he has given to the international press since his election victory on November 1.
Netanyahu has interviewed significantly more with the foreign press since his election victory than with the Israeli media. The reason is twofold: First, in most foreign media interviews, he is also promoting his recently published memoirs; and second, he is well aware of the concerns many in the international community have about the incoming government – and is trying to dispel them.
For instance, to NPR and its concern about Itamar Ben-Gvir, slated to becoming the country’s next national security minister, Netanyahu said that not only did the Supreme Court rule Ben-Gvir eligible to run for the Knesset, but that he has “modified a lot of his views” from his earlier days.
“And I have to say that with power comes responsibility. Not always; sometimes it works the other way around,” he said. “And certainly [it’s one thing to speak in] political campaigns a decade and a half ago, and it’s another to be in a position of responsibility in governance, and I certainly will ensure that that will be the case.”
To both NPR and Al Arabiya he tried to downplay the impact that his coalition partners would have on some of the government’s key policies.
“They are joining me, I’m not joining them,” he said to NPR. “I’ll have two hands firmly on the steering wheel. I won’t let anybody do anything to LGBT, or to deny our Arab citizens their rights or anything like that, it just won’t happen. And the test of time will prove that.”
NETANYAHU EXPRESSED similar sentiments to Al Arabiya: “I will govern and I will lead, and I will navigate this government,” he said. “Remember, Likud is one-half of this coalition. The other parties are, some of them are one-quarter, one-fifth the size of the Likud. They’re joining us; they will follow my policy.”
Interestingly, this argument goes against the grain of the perception created in Israel since the coalition talks began: Netanyahu is not leading but instead giving in wholesale to the demands of his coalition partners.
Netanyahu is telling the world that he is firmly in charge, while back at home, the sense among many, including some in his own party, is that this is anything but the case. This perception is the result of Netanyahu giving Otzma Yehudit’s Ben-Gvir expanded powers as national security minister, giving Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionist Party a foothold inside the Defense Ministry, and reportedly agreeing to numerous United Torah Judaism demands touching on the role of religion in the state.
Handing over the West Bank
Netanyahu took issue with the premise of one of the Al Arabiya interviewers’ questions that he has handed over powers in the West Bank to the extreme Right – a reference to Smotrich taking over authority for the Civil Administration and Ben-Gvir being given control over the Border Police in Judea and Samaria.
“I didn’t hand over great powers in Judea-Samaria, the West Bank, not at all. All the decisions will be made by me and the defense minister, and that’s actually in the coalition agreement. So there’s a lot of misinformation about that,” he said.
To a concern expressed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz mentioned in the Al Arabiya interview that there would likely – with the new government – be a collapse of the security situation in the West Bank, Netanyahu replied, “I think my record speaks for itself; the last decade in which I led Israel was the safest decade in Israel’s history. But not only safe and secure for Israelis, also safe and secure for the Palestinians. Because there’s been the least loss of life on both sides, and that’s not accidental. It’s because of a policy of security that I’ve led, which has actually resulted in more peace and economic possibilities. And by the way, in the year that I left government and the outgoing government was in power, things changed immediately. We had an eruption of violence like we had not seen since 2008, a year before I returned to office.”
Netanyahu also tried to debunk the feeling that any diplomatic process is dead in the water with the new government. In the Al Arabiya interview, he made a strong appeal for an agreement with the Saudis. It is worth noting, and an indication of the changing sands in the region, that Al Arabiya is a Saudi-controlled pan-Arabic network with no qualms about interviewing the past and future Israeli prime minister.
THAT HAS not always been the case. Just four years ago, in 2018, it was newsworthy when Elaph, a London-based Arab website owned by a Saudi businessman with close ties to the Saudi royal family, was willing to interview Israeli officials, such as then-foreign minister Israel Katz or then-chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot. Now Al Arabiya devotes an hour-long interview with Netanyahu, and no one bats an eyelid.
“Mind you, I’m committed to deepening and strengthening the remarkable Abraham Accords we’ve had with our neighbors, but I think the peace with Saudi Arabia will serve two purposes,” Netanyahu said.
“It will be a quantum leap for an overall peace between Israel and the Arab world. It will change our region in ways that are unimaginable. And I think it will facilitate, ultimately, Palestinian-Israeli peace. I believe in that. I intend to pursue it. Of course, it’s up to the leadership of Saudi Arabia if they want to partake in this effort. I certainly hope they will.”
That it is up to the leaders of Saudi Arabia is something that goes without saying. Then why say it? To signal to the Saudis, and everyone else, that despite the makeup of his government, he wants to move the regional peace process forward, and hopes that it will positively impact the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
That it is up to the leaders of Saudi Arabia is something that goes without saying. Then why say it? To signal to the Saudis, and everyone else, that despite the makeup of his government, he wants to move the regional peace process forward and hopes that it will positively impact the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
Asked by Al Arabiya how he expected “our countries to deal with a government whose leading members portray Arabs as enemies, sometimes in terms that are overtly racist,” Netanyahu replied that the ministers in question have “changed and moderated their views,” and also – again – because of his own record, which he said included investing significantly in the Arab sector when he was in power the last time around.
A common theme is emerging in all the interviews Netanyahu is giving the international press. To a world worried about what the new government will bring, Netanyahu’s reassurance is essentially: “Don’t worry; I’m the guy in charge here.” The presumptive prime minister is presenting himself as a reliable brake against any extreme policies. “You know me,” he is saying, “you can count on me, look at my record.”
However, for many in the world, as reflected by – but not limited to – the editorial in Saturday’s New York Times, a newspaper extremely critical of Israel regardless of the government in Jerusalem, that is scant reassurance.