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 done.
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.
Q. Most Israelis—and many Americans—viewed the report of the Goldstone Commission with contempt. What impact will the report have on Israeli security?
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.
Q. 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.
Q. 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 communities.
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