By Herb Keinon (Jerusalem Post)
Surprisingly buoyant, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sits down with ‘the Post’ and extols policy-making based on looking at the region as it truly is, without wishful thinking.
That must be the reason Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appeared extremely chipper Sunday afternoon, during a 30-minute pre-Rosh Hashana interview with The Jerusalem Post.
Just a month after Operation Protective Edge, in the midst of a percolating political crisis both within his party and in his coalition, as Iran, Islamic State and Hezbollah are either near or at the gates, one would think there would be signs of strain and fatigue on the Prime Minister’s face, extreme agitation in his demeanor.
But when Netanyahu met with the Post in his Jerusalem office just an hour or so after a budgetary meeting with Finance Minister Yair Lapid that did not produce an agreement, he looked – counter-intuitively – as fresh and relaxed as if he had just left the gym and was ready to start a promising new day.
“How are you doing?” I asked innocuously on entering.
“Good,” he replied. “Really, very good.” His jaunty manner, surprisingly, did not belie his words, leaving this guest wondering how – with everything going on in the region and in his coalition, and with the fate of the Jewish people resting on his shoulders – he could claim to be doing “good.”
But then you hear him talk, and it starts to make sense.
Having now spent nearly nine years as Prime Minister, without a serious political challenger anywhere on the horizon, Netanyahu is a man who feels not only confident, but vindicated. He is looking out at the world with a barely suppressible I-told-you-so attitude.
Netanyahu is a leader who feels he has correctly predicted the future, often going very much against the grain to do so.
He accurately foresaw the disastrous consequences that would follow the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip; he predicted the Arab Spring would not – as the Thomas Friedmans of the world gushed – give birth to “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” in the Arab world; and he pushed hard, and successfully, for tough economic sanctions against Iran, saying this would have a significant impact on the country.
He also feels vindicated by the recent Gaza operation – that it proves to all the absolute necessity of the security requirements he has so long demanded from the Palestinian Authority, before signaling a willingness to withdraw from any additional territory .
“I call it like I see it,” he said, clearly relishing that role, even if it means needing to “punch through the rising tide of political correctness.”
Political correctness, and – he could have added – “conventional wisdom.”
Conventional wisdom holds that coming out of Operation Protective Edge, now is the time for Israel – with its image tarnished in much of the world – to put forward a daring new diplomatic initiative, if not necessarily to pave the path to an elusive peace agreement, then at least to “change the atmosphere.”
Netanyahu isn’t buying.
Those hoping to see a bold new Israeli diplomatic push will be disappointed.
What is needed now instead, he said, is to “create the equation between our battle against Hamas, and the West’s battle against ISIS [Islamic State].” And as the West continues to battle Islamic State, more and more people will come to understand the true nature of the Islamic threat on Israel’s porch, something that “will help alleviate some of the criticism that is leveled against Israel.”
Maybe yes, maybe no. But Netanyahu harbors no doubts. Ticking off some of his previous forecasts that turned out to be correct, Netanyahu asked, “Who turned out to be right?” Power invigorates. So too, it seems, does a sense of vindication.
In the Rosh Hashana message you taped, you spelled out five challenges facing Israel in this order: Islamic State, Hamas, al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Iran. Which of those, in your mind, is the biggest immediate danger to Israel?
The biggest threat without question is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons, which means Iran.
That is the biggest immediate threat?
It is the biggest immediate, medium and long-term threat to Israel, and to the world. Militant Islamists… have global ambitions. Not only ambitions to dominate the Middle East, but also warped ambitions to impose their horrible creed on the entire world.
There is no room for the infidels. No room for Jews, Christians, or secularists.
There is no liberty for women, who are treated as chattel, or for gays, or for minorities who are persecuted or annihilated altogether.
That is a terrible danger as it is, but it would become intolerable if these movements – or the regimes on which they are based, or the terrorists they field – have weapons of mass destruction.
Imagine ISIS [Islamic State] with chemical weapons, or with nuclear weapons. This is effectively what you would have with Iran, which is governed by an Islamic militancy that knows no bounds.
This is a great threat for the world, but first of all a great threat to us. Because we are the outpost of the civilization they abhor so much and wish to wipe off the face of the earth. They say as much. They mean it, and I take them at their word.
Iran said it is willing to join the fight against ISIS if the West shows more flexibility in the nuclear negotiations, specifically on the number of centrifuges they can retain.
How big of a concern is that for you?
That in itself is an absurd claim. Iran fights ISIS because of its own internal dispute over who will rule the Islamic world they want to impose.
For them, the battle against ISIS is derived from that.
It is the same thing with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and Hezbollah. They fight ISIS for the same reason – because it is in their own interest. Suppose Assad would say, “I’ll fight ISIS if you give me chemical weapons back.” What would you say to that? It’s about as logical as the absurd claim that is now being made by Iran.
They fight ISIS anyway, and should not be rewarded with weapons of mass destruction.
To arm a militant regime like Iran with nuclear weapons is folly in itself, but to do so in order for them to fight what they are going to fight anyway is a double folly.
Does the West understand that?
I hope so. I do.
You’ve said over and over that ISIS is Hamas, and Hamas is ISIS, that they are both different branches of the same poisonous tree. This has not been accepted in the world. For instance, the US State Department spokeswoman said recently there is no comparison.
There are minor differences, to be sure. One wants to impose an Islamic caliphate, the other wants to impose the Mahdi [prophesied redeemer of Islam]’s return. One wants to return to the 11th century, the other to a 9th-century regime. There are other differences, but they are tactical.
The larger shared ambition is regional and ultimately global domination with no observance of human rights, pluralism or democracy, but rather the espousal of violence against their own people and everyone else.
As far as getting the message across about the similarity of the shared nature of the militant Islamists and what they represent, I think that message is getting through.
I have had long experience putting forward certain conceptions about fighting terrorism or airline hijackings, or putting sanctions on Iran or opening up our economy for competition, and many other causes and concepts that I’ve espoused that initially received the cold shoulder, but which over time more and more people accepted as self-evident truths.
They are not self-evident, but have to be punched through the rising tide of political correctness. That has never daunted me; I call it like I see it.
If you don’t identity a threat correctly, If you don’t diagnose the disease correctly, you are unlikely to treat it correctly.
And this is the first step in addressing this threat now endangering the entire world.
Is the world correctly diagnosing this threat?
It is beginning to. I’m not sure it is quite there yet, but it is moving in that direction – and that is something that we should help advance. The ones who see it best are actually many of our Arab neighbors.
They see it best; they see it clearly.
Indirect talks with Hamas are due to start tomorrow in Cairo. The presumption is that we are going to ask to keep Hamas from rearming, and prevent the demilitarization of Gaza. They are going to ask for things in return as well. What are you willing to give them?
If they don’t rearm and there is a mechanism for demilitarization, would you be willing to give them a seaport?
I’ve said more than once, that when Gaza is demilitarized and abandons the goal of destroying Israel, we are open to considering anything.
But that presumes the pacification of Gaza and the espousal of peace. That has always been our position. We don’t oppose a seaport in any Arab country.
I say that as an understatement; that is not an issue.
The real issue is whether we can ensure Israel’s vital security interests, and enable the reconstruction of Gaza and humanitarian assistance under our security requirements.
That, I think, will be the focus of what will be discussed, and certainly the focus of our current policies.
Why continue to do it indirectly? If everyone knows we are talking to Hamas, only doing it through the Egyptians, why not just cut out the middle man?
I think there is a big difference between these talks and political negotiations. That’s why I made sure the delegation is composed of security people.
It wasn’t happenstance, it was by deliberate design.
Often in situations of war, and even in the war against terrorism, you deal with sworn enemies through intermediates on certain matters of security, cease-fires or other matters.
Otherwise, there would never be a cease-fire. You always have to deal with someone, but you want to make sure that you don’t accord people who are committed to the war of terror against us any kind of political recognition.
This is the right policy.
What we want to make sure is that we go through the Egyptian channel, in order to secure Israel’s vital security interests. We are not going beyond that point into any kind of political negotiations with Hamas.
In your press conference on the day after the Gaza operation, you said there is presently a “reorganization” of forces in the Middle East creating a “possible diplomatic horizon for Israel that holds within it new possibilities for our state.” That’s a great statement, but amorphous.
Can you put any meat on that? What does that mean?
If you want to put any meat on that, don’t go beyond that publicly. If you want to do something that is not for the next headline, but to go somewhere, you want to explore whether the growing recognition of common challenges in the region can also translate itself into sharing the burden for peace among regional partners.
That is a delicate process.
Certainly a discrete process, and it remains to be seen whether we have such partners.
It is too early to say.
Would you be willing to accept the Saudi peace initiative now?
The question is not the Saudi peace initiative. If you read it carefully, you’ll see it was set up in another period: before the rise of Hamas; before Hamas took over Gaza; before ISIS took over chunks of Syria and Iraq, effectively dismantling those countries; before Iran’s accelerated nuclear program; before the takeover of Syria by al-Qaida on the Golan Heights.
Is it now irrelevant?
What is relevant, I think, is the fact that there is a new recognition among major countries in the Middle East that Israel is not their mortal enemy, to say the least, but a potential ally in addressing the common challenges. And whether we can translate that recognition of a political horizon into a peace proposal – a realistic peace proposal – is something worth exploring.
But I don’t think more can be said at this point.
But I will say that it has to be realistic. We pursue peace without ever disconnecting our wishes from our senses, from what we see around us.
You cannot pursue peace with a complete detachment to the reality around us. I never do.
I think the sober, responsible and careful approach has proven the correct one.
People say all the time, “Why don’t you take the plunge?” I think people are very lucky I didn’t take the plunge. The plunge we took in Gaza produced an Iranian proxy state in which thousands of rockets have been fired on Israeli cities, which has become a terrorist bastion that is poised like a dagger against the heart of Israel.
Some people celebrated.
I didn’t. I resigned from the government when that decision was finally made. And I warned about many of the things that came to pass.
At the time I was accused of being unimaginative, of being a doomsayer. I was completely realistic. In fact, the people who irresponsibly charged ahead proved to be wrong, we turned out to be right.
The same is true of the so-called Arab Spring. Everyone had the Pollyannaish view that the forces of liberal democracy would take over the entire Arab world. I cautioned them it was at least as equally possible – I said this as an understatement – that the forces that would come to the fore would be Islamists. Who turned out to be right? In this environment, you have to be sober and open to changes. The change that is evident is the realignment against the three sources of Islamic terrorism that threaten the Middle East: one led by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; the second by the various branches of al-Qaida and its offshoots, including Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS; and the third by the Shit’tes, the radical Shi’ites led by Iran with its Hezbollah proxies.
We can explore the possibilities for cooperation, not only to resist those forces but to establish a peace we can defend. But, as I say, we should do that carefully and responsibly.
Is that exploration happening now?
I think it is worth exploring, but I cannot tell you we have crossed the divide. Everything that I’ve been speaking about [in the past] in terms of Israel’s security needs in a potential peace agreement with the Palestinians has become sharply more evident after our experience in Gaza.
We walked out of Gaza and were promised this would open the way for a broader peace, and instead it was the very opposite: rockets, terror tunnels, unmanned aerial vehicles; ground, naval and air assaults on Israel. We don’t want that to happen again. Therefore, our security requirements, as well as the idea that on the opposite side of any potential border you have an entity that wants to live with you and not destroy you, these are basic needs that have been more than borne out by our experience in Gaza.
You mentioned not wanting to take the plunge. But Israel took a hit during the Gaza operation in public opinion in the West, and it seems that to restore Israel’s standing, there will be a need to initiate something diplomatic.
I think there is a need, on the contrary, to create the equation between our battle against Hamas, and the West’s battle against ISIS.
There is a situation now where the US and many other countries are – for good reason – going to take action against ISIS. Israel took such action against an organization – Hamas – that when we started the campaign was twice the size of ISIS.
This can give people an appreciation about how determined we were to strike at them, what force we used. But even then, we used force with judiciousness. It is tough to imagine what would have happened had the situation been reversed, if they had the power we had. What would they have done? Of course we don’t use – as democracies seldom, if ever, have done since 1945 – all the power we have, because we are constrained by considerations that guide democracies. We don’t target civilians. We don’t indiscriminately flatten cities.
We don’t do that, nor – as a rule – do democracies.
Yet I think Western democracies are going to find as they fight ISIS that it will challenge them more and more, because they [ISIS] use the same tactic.
They target civilians, they hide behind civilians, and they also kill their own civilians. This is exactly analogous to what Hamas is doing.
The reason Israel was criticized in the West, besides the influence of Islamic minorities in the West and the far Left, is that some people did not understand the common nature of the battle, of the danger, that threatens all of us.
I think that as time goes by more and more will understand, and it is our task to make that even more comprehensible.
That will help alleviate some of the criticism that is leveled against Israel.
In any case, we are open to a resumption of political negotiations, but to achieve a durable and responsible peace.
That is based on two principles: recognition and security.
Recognition because you make peace only with those who are willing to make peace with you, and security because that willingness may unravel over time.
So you need very strong security arrangements on the ground, as has been clearly demonstrated in Gaza, in order to avoid the repetition of Gaza – something that I am absolutely determined to achieve.
They are signaling me our time is up, so let me ask one political question.
How do you feel now [after Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s surprise resignation last week] when you read critics saying that you are chasing away all the up-and-coming stars in the Likud Party, and you are not allowing anyone to grow in your shadow?
You know, I have had the opportunity to be in several places around the country. To go to the beach, a number of times, to meet citizens. And I actually see the exact opposite approach.
People come up to me, and I don’t mean only Likud members – that is obvious, there is enthusiastic support there – I mean people from many other parts of the Israeli political spectrum. And they come to me and say, ‘Prime Minister, we want to tell you how much we appreciate the way you led the country during the [Gaza] operation.’ I have not seen any diminution in the support for me as compared to what it was before the operation, or during the years that I have led the country, and I have not seen diminution in support for the Likud.
But won’t it hurt the Likud when Gideon Sa’ar leaves?
Quite the contrary, I’ve seen a strong increase. That’s all I would say.