Herb Keinon
The Jerusalem Post (Interview)
September 28, 2011 - 12:00am

The most striking thing about meeting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in his Jerusalem office Monday afternoon – some four hours after he returned from a grueling five-day trip to New York – was the degree to which he didn’t look or act as if he just stepped off a transatlantic flight. He looked relatively fresh and his words were crisp.

“Adrenalin,” someone in his office said.

But it was more than just adrenalin. Always confident, Netanyahu seemed somewhat buoyed on Monday, pleased that his trip to the US – launched amid such low expectations of actually changing anything at the UN – had gone as well as it had.

During his trip, Netanyahu heard an exceptionally warm speech from US President Barack Obama; delivered an articulate address of his own that was well received at home; and was witness to the difficulty the Palestinians – thanks in part to his efforts – were having in mustering the necessary votes in the UN Security Council to force a US veto of their statehood bid.

Netanyahu, sitting at his desk under a picture of Theodor Herzl, was careful not to gloat: neither over how things went at the UN, nor over how his position has improved in the polls. He even said at one point that with his experience he well understands the ebbs and flows of political life, and that one should not get overly excited by the highs, or overly disconcerted by the lows.

But still, at the two-and-a-half year mark in his term, and on the eve of his third Rosh Hashana in office, Netanyahu looks out with a degree of satisfaction at his current situation. His government, despite a summer of massive protests, is secure; the US President is evincing a degree of understanding for Israel that he has not shown in the past; and the predicted Palestinian cakewalk at the UN, followed by the feared diplomatic “tsunami” – let alone third intifada – has not materialized.

To be sure, nothing is moving ahead with the Palestinians, but that – Netanyahu says, and sincerely believes – is a result of their decision, not his own. And as the Palestinians dally, and even as the Middle East undergoes transformative turmoil, Israel continues to build, grow, develop and fortify itself – not at all a bad place to be, he says, as 5771 turns into 5772.

What follows are excerpts of the Prime Minister’s Rosh Hashana interview with The Jerusalem Post.

JP: September is now behind us; the tsunami didn’t come. Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas made his speech and filed his request for full UN membership to the Security Council. You gave your speech. Now what? Where do we go from here?

BN: We should go into direct negotiations, that was always the idea. To have the parties negotiate directly with each other without preconditions. Israel has always wanted that, and I have announced that as our intention from day one. The Palestinians have avoided it. They have avoided it because they don’t want to recognize the nation state of the Jewish people, to give up the ghost on the refugees, and to give us the security conditions necessary to the defense of Israel.

These are the things I will insist on when the negotiations are resumed, and they are the right things to insist on if we are to have a realistic and enduring peace rather than a fictitious and ephemeral one.

JP: Logistically how will this all play out in the coming days?

BN: It is hard for me to tell you what the Palestinians will do. They have consistently been true to Abba Eban’s immortal phrase of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. I hope they will prove Eban wrong.

JP: If Abbas continues to refuse to negotiate, would you consider – at the Americans’ request – another settlement construction freeze? In an interview in the US you said you might think about it.

BN: No, I said that I would consider the issue of settlements, at least that’s what I meant to say. That the issue of settlements is one of the issues that would be [discussed] in the negotiations. But what the Palestinians have done is cherry-pick one of the final core issues and put [it] up front as a pre-condition. I could do the same. I could do it with rehabilitating a refugee camp, I could do it with demanding recognition of the Jewish state.

So far I haven’t done that because I want to get into direct negotiations and not create obstructions to entering them.

The Palestinians, by coming back to the issue of the settlement freeze, indicate that they don’t really want to negotiate. And remember, in an unprecedented action, which wasn’t easy, I gave them nearly a year of a freeze on new construction in the settlements. It didn’t help any, did it? So it’s a pretext. I mean, they use it again and again, but I think a lot of people see it as a ruse to avoid direct negotiations.

JP: So you wouldn’t consider it even if that was needed to get into the Quartet’s new framework of talks?

BN: I think we already gave at the office.

JP: You talked about the Palestinians dismantling a refugee camp to show they were serious about dropping the right of refugee return. You also mentioned that during an interview in the US. Is this a serious idea?

BN: We actually discussed this at one time: Why don’t they take a couple of streets in Balata, near Nablus, and fix them up, and show they are giving up the idea of going back to Jaffa or Acre.

JP: Who did you discuss that with? The Palestinians? The Americans?

BN: I discussed it with the Americans when [former US Mideast envoy George] Mitchell was coming here. I said, “Look, I could raise my own preconditions.” If you have good faith and you want to resolve a problem, you don’t set up obstacles to entering negotiations, you remove those problems. The Palestinians consistently insert and reinsert this issue in order to avoid negotiations.

JP: What was the American reply?

BN: I think it got the point across.

JP: The Quartet, in its statement Friday, called on both sides to refrain from provocative actions. The Interior Ministry’s District Planning committee on Tuesday is dealing with a project to build 800 new units in Gilo. Is that something that concerns you? Is this a repeat of what happened at Ramat Shlomo when US Vice President Joe Biden was here last year?

BN: I think people now understand that in a metropolitan area like Jerusalem, with three-quarters of a million people, there is planning that takes place for new projects.

People have families, families have children, and communities grow: they grow in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and they grow in the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

I have to say that this is one of the areas where Israel’s massive planning bureaucracy gets full international attention. We have so many planning stages, so many phases of approval that every time a plan moves through one of these stages, it gets world headlines. It shouldn’t in the first place, and I want to tell you that I am streamlining the planning so there will be fewer stages.

JP: Would you consider intervening and stopping this because of the timing? Are you worried this will cause embarrassment with the Americans?

BN: No, I don’t think there is anything new. We plan in Jerusalem. We build in Jerusalem. Period. The same way Israeli governments have been doing for 44 years, since the end of the 1967 war. We build in Jewish neighborhoods, the Arabs build in Arab neighborhoods, that is the way the life of this city goes on and develops for its Jewish and non-Jewish residents alike.

JP: Are the Americans aware of the Gilo plan?

BN: They know this; they have followed this for a long time. There is really nothing new.

JP: The UN Security Council is now taking up the PA’s state bid. For weeks you and your spokesman have said you won’t discuss an Israeli reaction until something happens on the ground. Is the very fact they are going to the Security Council now enough for an Israeli reaction?

BN: First of all I think they saw our action in the UN, both in what I said and in what was achieved by us, and not achieved by them.

They did not muster the votes they expected they would get in the Security Council. I think that is an important education. The international community wants the Palestinians to put aside their preconditions and get on with the negotiations. I think that has changed very much over the last few months.

I very much appreciated the stance President Obama has taken, the speech he gave at the UN, the fact that he has blocked the entry of a Palestinian state as a member state of the UN. And I may add that the security cooperation between Israel and the United States has never been better.

JP: Does the US have the seven votes in the Security Council needed to avoid using a veto?

BN: I haven’t counted in the last 24 hours, but it is certainly notable that you are asking me this question. You probably wouldn’t have asked it few months ago.

JP: Is that because of a greater appreciation of the situation by the international community, or because the US is pushing these countries hard to come on board?

BN: Both.

JP: You mentioned President Obama’s speech. Were you surprised by the degree of sympathy and empathy he evinced in that speech?

BN: No, I was very pleased by it. That is a natural expression of the depth of ties between the US and Israel… There is a wellspring of support in the US that comes from the hearts of the American people. This is a very important asset that the people of Israel and the State of Israel has, and one that we should treasure.

JP: When I compare what the President said in the past and what he said at the UN, I’m struck by a dramatic difference. I ask myself what happened? Why is he speaking now in a manner showing greater understanding to us and our situation than he has in the past?

BN: I’ve heard him speak many times about the importance of Israel to the US; the importance of the alliance; the importance of security; our attachment to the Jewish homeland – these are things that I heard before and am glad I heard them again with such clarity.

JP: During your speech to the UN you again made a conciliatory remark toward Turkey. You were repaid for that with a very harsh speech by [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and his comments Sunday that Israel killed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and uses the Holocaust to perpetuate victimhood. Did you discuss Turkey with the President?

BN: Among other things, yes.

JP: What can we do about this? Until now you have been very restrained regarding Turkey. At what time do you say enough is enough, and respond to what the prime minister of Turkey is saying?

BN: You know that I chose to respond to the [UN’s] Palmer Report [on the Mavi Marmara] in a positive way. And by the way I think this is an important issue for Israel. I lambasted the UN, and rightly so, for its various offenses against the truth and against Israel over the years, but I do have to say that the Palmer report is one of the few cases in which a largely balanced and fair report concerning Israel was done under the UN auspices. I think [UN Secretary- General] Ban Ki-moon should be given credit for the committee he set up and his choice of serious people for it.

As far as protecting our interests in this region, you can be sure that is something I do all the time. I choose my words carefully, although I am perfectly able to speak out with great fortitude, and I think you saw that at the UN, but I think sometimes restraint in language is useful. We can only hope that this will be viewed as such by other parties in the Middle East. It is not always the case, to say the least.

JP: Should Israelis be concerned about a military confrontation with Turkey after hearing Erdogan’s threats and everything he has said?

BN: I think that serious leaders in the Middle East know they have a common interest to maintain peace and stability. I think that no one would have doubts about the preference of keeping stability and peace in our area. I think that is a shared interest by many – despite the ebb and flow of rhetoric.

JP: But what about the rhetoric? What about Erdogan’s comments about the Holocaust and killing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians?

BN: Both allegations are false. I think these are outrageous charges against Israel that have nothing to do with the facts. Israel has lost thousands of its citizens to Palestinian terror, and has certainly not taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. I regret that we hear these statements from the leader of Turkey.

This is a country that – according to OECD reports – has acted against freedom of the press, as no country has in Europe, with journalists jailed and press freedoms curtailed. In Israel we are used to telling the truth, and the truth is that the allegations are completely false.

We don’t use the Holocaust. The Holocaust was the worst crime in history perpetuated against our people. To hear this allegation at the beginning of the 21st century, just some 60 some years after the Holocaust, is outrageous. It is outrageous.

JP: Was Turkey an issue that was a major topic of discussion in your talks at the UN?

BN: It was raised several times. The policies of Turkey, the direction of Turkey, is of concern to many nations in the region, not just Israel… I’m sure this is a general concern, not merely to Cyprus and to Greece, but I think to countries who want to see different attitudes and different approaches in the Middle East. It is sufficiently turbulent and unstable; we don’t have to add to this turbulence and instability with irresponsible statements and irresponsible actions.

JP: Some of the criticism here about your speech to the UN was that while you articulated Israeli fears, you didn’t give any hope.

BN: There is hope. The hope we have is by standing on the principles that we know have served us well not only through the life of the state, but even through the whole course of Zionism and throughout our history.

You can’t build hope on the foundation of lies. You can’t do that. You have to speak the truth. Hope will materialize into a better future when the Palestinians decide to tell the truth to their people. And the truth can be judged objectively; it is not our truth compared to their truth.

Any fair minded observer can tell you whether the Jewish people have been here for 4,000 years or not. And when that is ignored completely by the Palestinian side, you know something is wrong. Why can’t they utter the words “the Jewish people and the Jewish State?” There is a problem there, and you can’t build hope by shutting your eyes and saying it doesn’t matter – of course it matters, this is what this conflict is all about. It is not about the settlements; it is about the Jewish State. And it has to be said again and again. In order for the truth to be heard against systemic lies, you have to repeat it, and I tried to do so, albeit in different ways.

JP: What in, your mind, was the most important line in your UN speech?

BN: I think the most important observation was that Israel wants peace with the Palestinian state, and the Palestinians want a state without peace. I think that was in a nutshell what was germane to that session.

Equally, I wanted to bring forth the historic connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, something that is completely tossed out by Abbas, and something the world needs to be reminded of all the time.

I also wanted to bring out the recent experience we had, of vacating Gaza down to the last centimeter, and what transpired as a result. I put forth the theory that is being presented to us now, that we should just walk away – just walk away – demolish the settlements, hand over the keys to the PA and hope for the best.

Well, we did that, and we’ve seen what happened. I thought that was a simple way to explain to the world what most Israelis understand: that we can’t afford a replication of what happened in Gaza, or for that matter what happened earlier in Lebanon. And I think these three themes were important.

JP: You heard Abbas’s speech, and how far he is from recognizing any Jewish connection to the land. So where does that leave us?

BN: I think it leaves us with a question mark over whether the Palestinians want to engage Israel in a serious peace process that brings this conflict to an end. There is no question that Israelis are prepared to do that – and I represent the vast majority of Israelis who are prepared to enter into serious negotiations with the Palestinians and conclude it with a serious agreement that takes into account our need for security and recognition.

I think the Palestinians stand to gain as well, and to satisfy their legitimate aspirations. If their aspirations are the elimination of the Jewish State and to reverse the history of the last 63 years – then obviously that is not going to happen. But if they genuinely want to live next to us in peace and security, then that is an achievable goal.

JP: After Obama spoke, various Palestinian spokesmen said he was no longer an evenhanded broker. Are you concerned that the US, because of that speech, will now be shunted aside, replaced – perhaps – by the Europeans?

BN: No. I don’t think anyone has any illusions about the continued importance of the US and its primacy in the international community. It is the strongest power on earth; it is the most important country regarding the Middle East outside the region. It has had an important role in facilitating peace agreement to date, and will continue in the future.

JP: But I heard French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who indicated he wants a bigger role for Europe. Are you worried the Europeans are going to try to edge the US to the side?

BN: I don’t think they are going to do that, and I don’t think the US will allow itself to be edged aside.

I think that both the Palestinians and the Israelis understand equally that the US maintains a pivotal role when it comes to the international community. The Middle East is a very important area for American interests because it is a very important area in the world. And there is this deep bond between the US and Israel, that is important for the citizens and the government of the US. I think that those who think the US will be pushed aside are wrong.

JP: Is there any significance to the Quartet talking about holding a peace conference in Moscow?

BN: Well, not the significance implied in your question; that is not going to happen.

JP: In interviews you gave in the US, you were asked repeatedly about US politics and Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry and Mitt Romney blasting Obama for his policies on Israel. You didn’t want to get into it, saying you won’t be “thrown under the bus of American politics.” But I want to approach the question from a different angle. Your recent words in praise of Obama have been used by Jewish groups supporting the president. Are you concerned about the opposite effect, that you may unwittingly be getting into this campaign by praising Obama?

BN: I am not entering the field of American politics. The prime minister of Israel and the president of the US at any time, in all administrations, represent the people of both countries who have a deep bond of friendship and affection for one another, and that is reflected in the things that I have said.

Also, when the president of the US does an important thing like blocking an unfair initiative at the UN, I think it is important to express appreciation for that, and that is exactly what I am doing,.

JP: Israel seems to be becoming a wedge issue in American elections.

BN: Not if it is up to me.

JP: But what can Israel do to ensure this doesn’t happen?

BN: Just be straightforward, be doogri. Just voice your positions, stand on your interests and your principles, and welcome good polices when you see them. And that is what I do.

JP: Your UN speech gave you a strong bounce in a poll published today [Monday]. How can you retain that bounce?

BN: I’m not going to give these speeches every other day. It takes too long to write, for one thing. There is this ebb and flow in politics, you just have to be experienced enough – and I think I have experience enough – not to take too much heart when the tide is rising and not to be disconcerted when the waters are falling. Be steady as you go, that is my advice to myself.

JP: Did you meet in the UN with any Arab representatives, anyone from Egypt or Jordan?

BN: We have been in touch. We had limited time. I came there with very short notice. I concentrated on members of the Security Council on this visit and I concentrated on writing the speech; it doesn’t write itself.

JP: The tension with Egypt seems to have calmed down a bit.

BN: I hope so. I think it is to the benefit of both Egypt and Israel, and certainly to the benefit of peace. But there are a lot of forces that are seeking to undermine that peace, seeking to roll it back, seeking to use the Sinai not merely as a staging area for attacks from Gaza but seeking to use Gaza as a staging area for attacks from Sinai. This is obviously a very troubling development. We shared our concern with the Egyptian government, we shared our concern with the American government and we are taking action on our side of the border – principally by erecting the border fence, to reduce the danger of this happening. But there should be an underlying interest of any Egyptian government – the present and the future government – to maintain the peace with Israel, both for the sake of the peace and also for the sake of Egyptian interests.

JP: Are you confident that will be the case?

BN: I hope that the importance of maintaining the peace is understood by all the parties in Egypt. I think this message was given to the Egyptians very clearly by the US.

JP: Does the victory of Shelly Yacimovich in Labor, and that party’s resurrection in the polls, change your political calculus in any way?

BN: I leave the decision of other parties to other parties; they chose their own leadership and are welcome to do it. I think the Israeli public has a clear choice between political philosophies, especially when it comes to the question of our security and the way to ensure Israel’s future, prosperity and durability. And I think we have shown we can lead in a responsible and experienced manner.

JP: On the eve of Rosh Hashana, I’d like to ask you where you think the country will be next year at this time.

BN: I hope to move forward with genuine negotiations for a genuine peace. But I think the experience of Israel has shown that the best guarantor of our future is that we build our country. That we build our country, build our society, build our defenses, educate our children – continue to develop the State of Israel.

We have always wanted peace with our neighbors from day one. It took many decades to reach it with the Egyptians and Jordanians. We didn’t wait to build our country until that peace was achieved. We are not waiting now.

We are crisscrossing Israel with a network of fast roads and rail, we are revamping our education system, we have salvaged the higher education, we are building the security fence in the South, we are introducing competition into markets that have been closed and rigid in every area. We are working on the environment, the health system and above all we have a very, very sturdy economy. We have introduced economic reforms that have created tremendous resilience of the Israeli economy so that it stands out right now compared with virtually all economies of the Western world.

Israel is in a unique place because we have had the right polices to give ourselves economic strength; military strength, which depends on the economy; and of course spiritual strength by stressing the general Jewish values that are now being taught in our schools.

We have a lot more to do, but I think that as we approach the new year, we can say we have done a great deal and will continue in this path. That is the message I have for the coming year: we have to continue to fortify the state of Israel. That is the best guarantor of the future and ultimately the best guarantor of peace. You don’t make peace with the weak, you make peace with the strong.


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