Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touted his excellent relations with Democrats and US President Joe Biden, in an interview with Channel 12 on Monday.
Asked why nearly a month after the president’s inauguration Biden has yet to call him, Netanyahu said: “We have a great friendship of almost 40 years, since I represented Israel in Washington [as deputy chief of mission] and he was in the Senate. We agree about many things, but there are disagreements on Iran and the Palestinians.”
Biden has called leaders of countries around the world since becoming president, but none in the Middle East.
Netanyahu denied that his poor relationship with former US president Barack Obama could have negative consequences on US-Israel ties today.
“I have great relations with the Democrats,” Netanyahu said. “I meet hundreds of members of Congress and the Senate who visit here. I checked, it’s 50-50 between the parties.”
The prime minister said his concern is “not Democrats or Republicans. It’s a matter of policy…If you oppose [Israel’s position] when it comes to Iran, a matter of our very existence,” then he said he will speak out about it.
Referring to the leader of Yesh Atid, the party now in second place after Likud in recent polls, Netanyahu said: “Israeli citizens must ask themselves... who will stand up for Israel’s interests, me or [Yair] Lapid?... With all due respect, who will know to stand up to international pressure? Who will save the economy, me or the failed finance minister Lapid?”
The prime minister vowed that there will not be a rotation for the premiership, and that the parties supporting him will get over 61 seats after the March 23 election.
Netanyahu repeated his commitment that MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit party who is running in the Religious Zionist bloc, will not be a minister in his government, though Ben-Gvir will likely be in the coalition.
Otzma Yehudit was founded by students of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was banned from running for the Knesset in 1988 due to racist incitement.
Ben-Gvir “is unfit to be a minister,” Netanyahu said.
Still, Netanyahu defended his decision to help bring together the bloc that includes MK Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party, Otzma, and the anti-LGBT Noam Party, so that right-wing votes would not fall below the electoral threshold.
When confronted with some of Ben-Gvir’s anti-Arab as well as homophobic statements, Netanyahu said: “Now you have your answer as to why he won’t be a minister…Ben-Gvir’s positions are not my positions.”
Netanyahu spoke of trying to “change Israeli society” and further integrate its Arab citizens.
At the same time, he rejected political cooperation with the Southern Islamic Movement-affiliated Ra’am Party, led by MK Mansour Abbas, who has expressed an unusual willingness to work with Netanyahu in recent months.
“I will not depend on anyone who opposes Zionism,” Netanyahu said. “He is my rival. But, Netanyahu said, “I turn to the Arab citizens... I say, don’t choose extremists. Go with me.”
Netanyahu strongly emphasized the need for Israelis to get vaccinated against COVID-19, pointing out that the speed at which Israel reopens businesses and facilities depends on how quickly another 570,000 citizens over the age of 50 are vaccinated.
A full reopening could come as soon as two months, “if citizens of Israel are obedient – and most are – and we take steps gradually according to the measures we established,” Netanyahu said.
The prime minister boasted that “the world is amazed” at Israel’s vaccination rollout, noting that Israel is by far the leader in the number of people fully vaccinated. According to Our World in Data, 29% of Israelis were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Sunday, while the UK, in second place, had only 4.21% of residents fully vaccinated.
“We will be first in the world to get out” of the pandemic, Netanyahu said. “If we behave responsibly, we will get out of this, big-time… because of millions of vaccines we brought and a fantastic health system.”
Netanyahu pushed back against the accusations of mass violations of pandemic precautions by the haredi public.
“The attempt to incite against them is wrong,” Netanyahu said. “Most of the haredi population is very obedient, and most rabbis say to follow the law. There are [also] violations in the Arab sector and the secular sector.”
The prime minister took issue with claims that he gives in to political pressure from haredi parties in his coalition, saying “there are pressures in all directions,” and compared his meetings with major rabbis to meetings with mayors in the Arab sector.
“I talk to them, I don’t beg,” he said. “The virus attacks crowds that gather, whether for a haredi funeral or a protest on Balfour Street,” outside the Prime Minister’s Residence.
Netanyahu also answered questions about his trial, saying he will not seek a plea deal because the corruption charges will fall apart under scrutiny.
“The longer it goes on, you see how manufactured and bizarre it is…It makes up a crime that doesn’t exist in any democratic country. [The State Attorney’s Office] opened an investigation against the prime minister without permission from the attorney-general, which violates a Basic Law,” he said.
The prime minister expressed certainty he will win the upcoming election, despite what he described as efforts by the prosecution “to intervene in the election.”
As for critics on the Right and Left saying he cannot be on trial while running the country, Netanyahu pointed to the vaccine operation, normalization with four Arab countries and his continued efforts against the Iranian nuclear threat.
“What I can do in one hour, Lapid, my rival, will not be able to do in a lifetime,” he crowed.
Yesh Atid responded that “The 5,388 people who died of coronavirus are the witnesses to Netanyahu’s failure at managing the corona crisis, a failure that comes from the failure [to close] Ben-Gurion Airport [earlier] and giving in to blackmail over enforcement.
“The upcoming election will be between a sane and liberal government of Yesh Atid and a government of [United Torah Judaism leader Ya’acov] Litzman and Ben-Gvir,” Yesh Atid’s spokesman said.