Up until six months ago, Eyal Gabbai was the Director-General of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. Working with the Prime Minister for up to 18 hours a day, he was a key member of Netanyahu’s inner circle.
Today, Prime Minister Netanyahu met with President Obama in the White House for historic discussions on Iran, as the regime’s nuclear clock is ticking. Tonight, he will address an adoring crowd of over 13,0o0 at the annual AIPAC policy conference taking place at the Washington D.C. Convention Center.
Days ago The Algemeiner sat down with Mr. Gabbai for a wide ranging exclusive interview on the Iran talks, the relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, insider details on how Netanyahu’s decision making process on a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities will be conducted and who the key players are.
Gabbai also discussed Netanyahu the man, his ideology as well as his personal attributes and values. Part 2 of the interview follows below.
DE: So when did your relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu start?
EG: I’ve known Netanyahu for 15 years. When he was first Prime Minister I was adviser to the minister of justice, and that’s how I met him. Then I became the head of the economic division of the prime minister’s office for Netanyahu.
We worked together up to when he lost the election in ’99. Then I went to the private sector. I was V.P. in a communications company, and then in 2002 Sharon appointed me to the government. In 2003 Netanyahu became minister of finance. Then we worked closely together until he resigned. He actually resigned on the very same day I had my son’s brit (circumcision), and he was supposed to be there. An hour before the brit I get a call, “I will not be able to come; I’m holding a press conference right now,” and everyone who came was speaking about Netanyahu’s resignation because of the ‘disengagement’ at the time.
DE: How many people would you say are in the prime minister’s inner circle, so to speak?
EG: It’s a very small group. We have about five to six people.
DE: So do you think that you would spend more time with the prime minister than his family?
EG: Yes. In the close circle of the prime minister, you spend more time because you work about 18 hours a day.
DE: He works 18 hours a day?
EG: No, the prime minister works 20 hours a day, I would say, because he works even when he goes home.
DE: So he sleeps for only four hours?
EG: Yes. Usually, I say four hours because maybe he sleeps six hours, but in between he gets phone calls, urgent phone calls from the military secretary, from the head of security services, from the army…. So he’ll sleep only about four hours, and I think on weekends he does better, but it’s a very, very difficult – I would say – impossible mission to be the Prime Minister of Israel.
I keep asking him, “Why?” It is always tough decisions, because if there is some good decision to be made, there’ll be someone else who will want to make it – the minister of finance, the ministers themselves, – it will never come to the Prime Minister; we don’t need his approval. He decides between the bad and the worse. But he keeps telling me, “Look, there are so many runner-ups for this position.” Yes, but it’s very tough.
DE: What would you say are the Prime Minister’s best qualities?
EG: First of all, I think that Netanyahu is one of the smartest, if not the smartest, person I have ever met.
DE: You’ve met other heads of state?
EG: I met Sharon, Barak, and I met Olmert.
DE: So he’s the smartest?
EG: I think he is the smartest. Olmert was also very, very smart. I think Netanyahu understands the facts and the issues really fast. Sometimes all the needed facts are not known. It’s always a question of possibilities, future questions and so on. So he understands fast what the issues are, what the facts are that are known, and how to make a decision in such a situation. By the way, Olmert was also very good at that. The problem with Olmert was that he might have been too fast in making decisions.
DE: You think Netanyahu has the right balance?
EG: Yes, I think he has that, the right balance, and I also think Netanyahu has something which is very important – ideology. He has an ideology in terms of the Arab world around us, economic policy and in terms of Jewish education.
DE: How would you describe it? Is it the same ideology that he lays out in his book, “A Durable Peace?”
EG: I think he has the same ideology. I think that he was willing to sacrifice part of it in order to fulfill other goals. For example, I don’t think that Netanyahu believes that two states is the best solution in the world, that we actually aspired to that from the beginning of Zionism. But he was willing to sacrifice at least, in his words, in order not to have the American administration against us on all fronts, and especially on the most important front, which I think is the main agenda for this term – Iran. He knew that if he’ll have a conflict with the administration over the peace process – even over the basic question of if there will be one state or two states – he wouldn’t have the support on Iran.
I think that he believes that the sacrifice will not fulfill itself, which means that it’s only on paper because peace will not be able to be negotiated in the near future, which is absolutely right, and I think most Israelis, when you see how strong he is in the polls, understand that it doesn’t matter, because Netanyahu or Tzipi Livni, or even Yossi Sarid cant make peace with the Arabs for many reasons. The doubt over the peace treaty with Egypt has confirmed this and I think all Israelis lost their hope of ‘eating hummus in Cairo.’
I don’t think that the Egyptians will be stupid enough to say that they are cancelling this treaty, but on the other hand, what will Israel do if rockets will start to be fired from Sinai to Eilat and Beersheva? Will we invade Egypt? Will we declare that the peace treaty no longer holds? They’ll say, of course, it’s not an official action by them; it’s extremist groups that they can’t control, Al Qaeda and Hamas and whatever. So, is there peace? I keep saying, if it walks like a dog, if it’s on four legs and it barks, it’s probably a dog. So if you don’t have a secure economic relationship, then is there peace?
The Israelis understand this, and they are happy that we haven’t made peace with Syria and given them the Golan, because we don’t know who will come next.