|Interview: Benjamin Netanyahu|
In March 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu became prime
minister of Israel for the second time, having previously led the
nation from 1996 to 1999. He has also served as Israel’s foreign
minister and finance minister. In his interview with Hadassah Magazine,
Netanyahu discusses Israel’s relations with the United States, the
challenge of a nuclear Iran and the prospect for rekindling peace talks
with the Palestinians.
Q. Is a nuclear Iran an existential threat to Israel? Can it still be prevented?
A. It’s a grave threat to Israel, the region and the world. It can be
prevented if the international community puts sufficient pressure on
Iran’s regime. Iran is largely dependent on the energy markets and the
import of refined petroleum. So there are a lot of ways in which the
international community can apply leverage on Iran, and I hope this is
Q. Does the international community have the will to steer this course?
A. There’s been a change recently, a greater unity and awareness of the
problem. I began talking about the danger of Iran acquiring a nuclear
military capability in 1996. This threat is still festering 14 years
later. There is certainly a much greater awareness about this danger
today. The concern is not only shared by the United States and the
leading European nations but also by other powers. The concerns extend
to virtually all the governments of the Arab world as well, and this is
a new situation.
Most Israelis—and many Americans—viewed the report of the Goldstone
Commission with contempt. What impact will the report have on Israeli
A. Israel, like any genuine democracy,
investigates its own armed forces whenever needed. We have dozens of
investigations currently ongoing without any relationship to the U.N.
report. This report is a victory for terror because it tells terrorists
they can fire at civilians while using other civilians as human
shields. That’s a double war crime by any standard! This report
effectively places the victims in the dock. In this case, the victim,
Israel, applied as surgical a process of responding to terrorists
embedded in the midst of civilians as ever witnessed in the history of
warfare. This is not only my view but also that of Colonel Richard
Kemp, the former British commander in Afghanistan who recently gave
impressive testimony emphasizing this precise point.
Q. How does the report impact on the quest for peace?
A. It strikes a blow to [peace]. Israel is always asked to take risks
for peace, but these need to be measured risks. This is not a
theoretical problem; we actually went through this debate before the
withdrawal from Gaza. Some thought the withdrawal from Gaza would bring
peace; others, like me, were less optimistic, predicting the area would
be taken over by terrorists, as was eventually the case. But even in
the worst-case scenario, they believed Israel would have tremendous
international legitimacy to strike at the terrorists after voluntarily
leaving every last inch of Gaza. Some legitimacy! Now they tell us that
even if you walk away from territory, we’ll make sure you can’t walk
back in when the terrorists break every rule in the book and fire
rockets at us from the areas we vacated.
The Obama administration’s approach to the peace process seems to have
shifted dramatically, from sharp calls for a total freeze on Jewish
settlements to actual praise for your position on this issue. What
prompted this change?
A. The partnership between the
United States and Israel is very solid and has very deep roots. The
U.S. administration’s understanding of our challenges and commitments
is growing every day. I believe there’s a growing appreciation in
Washington these last several months of the many actual steps we’ve
taken and...of the principles we’ve expressed. The American
government...sees what we’ve done in removing hundreds of barriers,
checkpoints and other obstacles to enable Palestinians to move freely
in the West Bank, to enjoy an economic boom that would have been
impossible without the policies we introduced. We haven’t seen this
kind of prosperity in West Bank towns and villages for many years, and
it’s a direct result of the freedom of movement we’ve initiated and
encouraged. I personally went down to the Allenby Bridge to make sure
that the hours of passage were extended so that Palestinians could be
connected to the rest of the Arab world more easily, with an increase
in the flow of goods, commerce and tourism.
Q. How do you envision peace with a Palestinian state?
A. Any final peace agreement must be based on a demilitarized
Palestinian state which recognizes the Jewish state of Israel. These
words are carefully chosen. [A Palestinian state] must be demilitarized
because otherwise we’ll get another platform from which Hamas, Iran’s
proxy, can fire rockets at us. No less than ensuring our security, the
Palestinians must actually come to terms conceptually and practically
with our legitimacy as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Q. How would this happen?
A. They must shed their hope that Israel will disappear.... This is the
crux of the problem.... There has been a persistent refusal to
recognize the Jewish state. This is not a conflict about the
territories or the settlements. It raged from 1920, for close to 50
years, before there was a single Israeli soldier in Judea and Samaria
and continued to rage after we vacated Gaza. It’s critical for the more
moderate elements of the Palestinians to say they will end the conflict
with the emergence of a Palestinian state, that such a state is not
merely a means to continue the conflict but rather a means to end the
conflict, and to end the refusal to accept Israel’s role as the
nation-state of the Jewish people.
While there is no formal freeze on the natural growth of settlements,
there doesn’t seem to be very vigorous construction going on in these
A. We’ve shown a readiness to restrain
construction. I’ve said that we won’t build new settlements, that I
won’t expropriate additional land for existing settlements. That means
limiting some construction, but not all and certainly not to the point
where it makes normal life impossible for the people in these places.
Q. What Hanukka message can you bring to the American Jewish community?
A. Hanukka is a great celebration about the life-force of the Jewish
people. The Maccabean triumph was not a foregone conclusion. Only the
will of the people and their very determined leadership were able to
forge victory. We’ve seen this time and again in our history.
Regrettably, attacks on the Jews will likely not disappear.
Anti-Semitism [has] been around for over 2,500 years.... We thought it
disappeared after the Holocaust but now understand that was a momentary
respite. What has truly changed in our history is not the attacks but
our ability to defend ourselves against them—physically and, no less
important, politically and morally. I will never forget the advice the
Lubavitcher Rebbe gave me when I became Israel’s ambassador at the U.N.
He said: Don’t count the votes; it’s not the votes that really count
because you’ll always lose by that measure. It’s whether you speak the
truth. He said that in a house of complete darkness if you light one
candle, the light will be seen far and wide. Our job for Hanukka is to
remember that we must always stand up for Israel by lighting several
candles— eight candles—for the truth. Truth is our most important
weapon against the slander that our enemies have used against us for so
many years. H