Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is still expected to win Israel’s election Tuesday under the combined Likud-Yisrael Beitneu party ticket, spoke to Israel Hayom from his office in Jerusalem.
“Many people want to support me as prime minister. So I tell them ‘give me the power to succeed, to lead, to face the current turbulence. This power will bring a better future for our children. The fact is that we have begun to make a change. We can see it in education, the economy, and our security is stable.”"The citizens of Israel see the calm on our security fronts while an unprecedented regional storm rages outside. The citizens of Israel can all go out and have a good time, they can send their children to school without having to worry, as opposed to the way it was just a handful of years ago. These things didn’t happen by themselves. They happened because of smart policy. We behaved responsibly and we avoided waging unnecessary wars. Now we have a young, yet experienced, team. No other party has such a team, or such proven policy success.
“At this stage the only ones being ruled out are me and my Likud party. We will outline the policy and guidelines for the next government: strength and security; responsibility and insistence on diplomatic objectives; fiscal responsibility; a more just division of the burden; and lowering the cost of living, particularly the cost of housing. Anyone who wants to align themselves with these objectives will be welcome to do so.”
Q: If Labor eventually ends up joining your coalition, how can the party be incorporated into your government in non-economic issues?
“When I hear their ideas, the irresponsible fiscal policy, the only partially veiled race to make diplomatic concessions, I don’t see any real foundation for a partnership with the Labor Party. Obviously everyone is entitled to their principles, but practically speaking, after they ruled out joining forces with Likud, and with me personally, I don’t think that partnership is possible.”
Q: Looking back, do you regret calling early elections?
“No. I think it was necessary. After four years it became impossible to move forward and we couldn’t get a responsible budget approved. It was the right thing to do, like the merger between Likud and Yisrael Beytenu. This is the way to lead the country.
“Anything that weakens this party and splits it in different directions will only weaken the State of Israel. As long as the joint [Likud Yisrael Beytenu] list remains strong, we can handle the challenges and pressures we face very well. That is what communicates stability. When the ruling party shrinks, it becomes a target for extortion from every direction.
“That is why I am always surprised when people tell me: ‘We want to make you stronger by making you weaker.’ There is no way to make me stronger other than voting for the party I head. The idea of making us stronger externally was already tried in the 1992 election and in the 1999 election. The result was that a left-wing party came into power and worked against the very values that the voters had wanted to support.”
Q: In the last election you spoke about your “natural partners” — are the same parties still your go-to coalition partners?
“Anyone who wants to walk with us on our path is invited to do so and will be a welcome partner. I will say it again: I am not assembling any coalitions right now.
“If I look forward, beyond the election, our objectives are clear: We are facing enormous challenges. There is the Iranian nuclear threat, Syrian chemical weapons, and an ever-growing missile threat from Hezbollah and Hamas. We have very big tasks ahead.
“Add to these enormous tasks the duty to maintain a strong Israeli economy while the global economic crisis is still ongoing. Who can do all that? When you ask the public, the answer is clear: The only person who can handle all these tasks is a prime minister who has a wide ruling party to lean on. A prime minister with no one to lean on will not be able to do it, because they will be too busy trying to please the coalition members. The only way to ensure that I remain in a leadership position is to vote for the party that I lead.”
Q: Is there any possibility that Ehud Barak will continue to serve as defense minister? (Barak recently announced that he was resigning from politics after the elections)
“He hasn’t asked, and I haven’t offered. Anyway, all this business reminds me of the talk surrounding the alleged spot that Ehud Barak was promised on the Likud list. It never happened. These rumors (about Barak continuing on as defense minister) have the same level of credibility.”
Q: Why won’t you divulge who you have pegged for the top positions in your government?
“From my vast experience in Israeli politics I know that it is best to first win the election, assemble a coalition, and then decide who to man the cabinet with, both in terms of coalition deals and from an individual perspective. I can tell you that the best and most experienced team is in Likud-Beytenu. Who can compete with that?”
Q: Who would you like to see as foreign minister in your next government?
“Again, I am not handing out portfolios just yet, but I certainly have an agreement with [Yisrael Beytenu leader and former Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman that I will keep that portfolio in the party. I hope that he can put his personal issues behind him quickly and resume being a senior cabinet minister.”
Q: Would you agree to fully merging Likud with Yisrael Beytenu?
“We are already talking about a deeper cooperation after the election and there are several ideas as to how to do it. Perhaps the way it was done with Gahal (an acronym for Gush Herut-Liberalim — a major right-wing political faction led by Menachem Begin from its founding in 1965 until it merged into Likud in 1973). But the objective is to remain united because it important for the leadership of the country as well. In Israeli politics, splintering is deadly. It is simply the root of all evil. It is very difficult to run a country like Israel, which is full of challenges. What other country faces the kind of pressures that Israel faces? We can’t afford to split up in the face of such challenges.”
Q: The ministers in your party have been criticizing President Shimon Peres for interfering in the elections. You have avoided making any such accusations.
“The president and I speak to each other a great deal, every few days. There are many things that we agree on, and there are quite a few things on which we disagree. Ultimately, it is the government that shapes Israel’s policies, and the people who elect the government are the citizens of Israel. I am convinced that the president understands that the ones who will decide who the prime minister of Israel will be are, first and foremost, the citizens of Israel.”
“I behaved differently when I was in the opposition”
Earlier this week, Jeffrey Goldberg, a respected commentator considered to be close to U.S. President Barack Obama, published an article on Bloomberg View in which he criticized Israel’s recently announced plan to build hundreds of new housing units in the E1 corridor between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim. According to Goldberg, Obama said after the announcement that Netanyahu was advancing self-defeating policies and leading Israel toward global isolation.
Q: Do Goldberg’s sentiments accurately reflect the views of the U.S. president, in your opinion?
“I don’t know. But I think that President Obama knows that only the citizens of Israel will determine what Israel’s vital interests are, and they will be the ones who decide who is best suited to protect these interests in the best possible way.”
Q: In your view, is this a case of U.S. intervention in an Israeli election?
“I don’t think anybody has any doubt that the citizens of Israel will be the ones to decide, and no one will decide for them. The citizens of Israel can judge for themselves how well we have withstood pressures and protected vital Israeli interests. We did it successfully, and I hope that we will win the public’s trust so that we can continue to do it in the next four years as well.
“I can see three main objectives: Preventing Iran from arming themselves with nuclear weapons; preserving our vital security interests and not going back to the 1967 borders, which are indefensible; and keeping Jerusalem united. These are fundamental objectives. We have managed to withstand international pressure and protected these objectives.”
Q: Is there a link between the Israeli Left and the Bloomberg article?
“There are people who are incessantly trying to enlist the world against Israel, while I try to enlist the world against Iran. Sadly, this is a phenomenon that keeps recurring. I behaved differently when I headed the Opposition and when I served as prime minister in the past. I always supported Israel’s governments and their struggles to protect vital interests.”
Q: What will your relationship with the U.S. look like in the next term?
“The relationship between Israel and the U.S. is very strong. We are in full cooperation on defense and intelligence. There are also joint ventures in other areas as well, but there are disagreements over the best way to achieve peace. That is not new. Disagreements surrounding this issue have existed between Israeli prime ministers and American presidents since the establishment of the State of Israel.
“David Ben-Gurion had disagreements with U.S. Secretary of State [George] Marshall when he announced the establishment of the State of Israel. [Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol had disagreements with [U.S. President Lyndon] Johnson over lifting the blockade on the eve of the Six-Day War. [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin had disagreements with [U.S. President Gerald] Ford over American demands for unilateral withdrawal from Sinai. [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin had disagreements with [U.S. President Ronald] Reagan over Iraq as well as the Reagan administration’s diplomacy plan. [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon had disagreements with [U.S. President George W.] Bush over immediately ending Operation Defensive Shield.
“Despite all these disagreements, the relations between the two countries only grew closer, because the shared interests and shared values are stronger.
“I know what my policy is: to launch peace negotiations with clear terms on how to end the negotiations. I refuse to jeopardize Israel’s security with this maneuver, and I will not close my eyes. I am willing to be satisfied with signing a piece of paper and saying that I protected Israel’s vital interests. No one can guarantee that the land we concede to the Palestinians won’t end up under Hamas control, and in practice in Iran’s control. Wisdom, care and responsibility are required for this. I think that these are things that I have brought to Israel’s leadership.”
Q: If relaunching talks requires you to declare another moratorium on settlement construction beyond the Green Line, would you be willing to do it?
“I don’t see any reason to declare a moratorium. It exhausted itself. After nearly a year-long moratorium, it turned out that it wasn’t what the Palestinians really cared about. Our problem with them is more basic: recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state within any border. There was a moratorium, they didn’t utilize the time and only waited for it to expire, and then asked for another moratorium. After all, [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas could have taken advantage of the time to engage in real, meaningful negotiations. But he didn’t. Afterward he went to the U.N. and blatantly violated the Oslo Accords.”
Q: Is Abbas still a partner?
“I hope that he changes his behavior, because up until now he has done everything in his power to avoid negotiations, and he has also joined up with Hamas, which seeks our destruction. That is no way to make peace.”
“Don’t bang your head against the wall”
Q: Will 2013 be a deciding year on the Iranian front?
“Up until this minute, the Iranians haven’t crossed a single one of the red lines that I drew at the U.N. That is not to say that they are not advancing their nuclear program in other ways. They are continuing to enrich low grade uranium; they are not crossing the red line of highly enriched uranium, but they are continuing to improve their facilities and to prepare for that option. In my assessment, if they thought that sanctions were not accompanied by a credible military threat, they could become tempted to cross that line and to try to complete the enrichment required for their first nuclear weapon.”
Q: Has there ever been a situation in which you planned to take a certain action and senior officers or organizations stopped you?
“This entire debate is irresponsible, and it is also not very accurate. Anyway, all the criticism against me for investing billions in making Israel stronger, what exactly is the criticism? Of course I invested billions in making us stronger. I also invested billions in a security fence that has completely stopped the infiltrations (into Israel).
“For the last seven months, not a single infiltrator has entered Israel’s cities. Of course it also helps a lot in preventing terror attacks from the Sinai border. We invested in Iron Dome, to protect the South as well as central Israel, and we are still going strong. We invested billions in the IDF’s defensive and offensive capabilities as well as the Israel Security Agency’s and the Mossad’s capabilities. These capabilities came into play during Operation Pillar of Defense and in other operations that I will not specify.
“We have to be ready to protect ourselves if needed. This is a very basic principle. It is what sets us apart. I refuse to let the State of Israel be in the situation that the Jews were in 70 years ago, having to beg others to protect us. As long as I am prime minister, that will not happen.”
Q: Are the sanctions against Iran working?
“They are effectively weakening the regime there, but so far they have been ineffective in stopping the Iranian nuclear program.”
“We revolutionized education”
Q: If you assemble a coalition, what will your first task be?
“First I will ensure Israel’s security. Within security, the first task will be to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. I hope we can do that with international pressure and that the U.S. will join us and live up to the promise we have heard from them countless times, to prevent the nuclearization of Iran.
“Meanwhile, we are taking into account the possibility that we might have to act alone to protect ourselves. Not only are these things overt, they are usually linked. If the world knows that we are determined to take action, it will encourage the world to take action. Sanctions without a credible military threat are not enough.”
Q: Do you have a partner in the Arab world today?
“There are quite a few Arab leaders that see eye to eye with us on the Iranian threat, and not just that. It isn’t always projected outward. Sometimes we reach understandings for other reasons, like the understandings we have with Egypt on stabilizing the Sinai border and the situation in Gaza. I think that right now, our interests correspond. That doesn’t guarantee that they will continue to correspond, but we have to keep navigating the diplomatic arena wisely. I think that we have proven that we know how to do just that.”
Q: The upcoming election is also about fiscal policy, and Israel now has a budgetary deficit.
“We took this deficit into account. With the moderate tax plan that we passed, for example. We assumed that the deficit would amount to four percent [of the gross domestic product], and it likely won’t affect the citizens’ pocket. I always prefer not to raise taxes, and I will always do everything in my power to avoid raising taxes. I prefer cutting government spending over raising taxes because lower taxes encourage growth and growth provides resources for other things.
“We are number one in the West in terms of our economy with our economic results. Our deficit is half that of the U.S. or Britain. We are leaders in many other respects as well. We revolutionized education and mobile communications infrastructure.
“Our next task is to do to the housing market what we did to the mobile communications market. But how can we do that without a strong ruling party? When Israel’s citizens go to the polls, they should think a little about the deep challenges that this country faces. It is rather difficult to pull yourself out of the shallow elections discourse, which doesn’t touch on the actual root of things.”
Q: Where will the money to cover the deficit come from?
“The deficit isn’t that large. We have had larger deficits than this one in the past. In 2009 we had a deficit of 5%. We managed to diminish it and simultaneously ensure pay raises for police officers, teachers, doctors and to increase minimum wage and improve contract workers’ conditions. The key is continued growth, which stems from reforms that increase competition in the market. That is where we will take action.
“Listen, this is not a cliché and it is not just spin. We are achieving things that no one has done here for decades. I remember the way things were when I became finance minister in 2003. Back then they already told me that we didn’t have a shot. I came, I made changes, and we succeeded in raising Israel’s credit rating.
“Israel’s achievements are admired all over the world. Not too long ago, here in my office, a famous radio personality from a well-known economic network sat here and said ‘every European country should envy your numbers.’”