It looks as if the fake social-media profile scandal that was thrown at Likud landed at the perfect time. Right when the campaign that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was leading was losing adrenalin, The New York Times and Yediot Achronot popped up and once again made it clear to right-wing voters that the desire to a different prime minister, at any cost, was equally prevalent in both countries.
“Their condescension toward the Likud is seen in the bot story,” Netanyahu tells Israel Hayom in a special interview. “It never occurs to them that Likud voters are real people, who think independently. In their eyes, they’re not people. Here, they used to be called ‘riffraff.’ Then ‘baboons’ and now ‘bots.’ ”
“Anyone who cares what people think about him isn’t someone anyone is thinking about,” Netanyahu says, pounding on the table to drive home his philosophy about his political and diplomatic path, and equally so what he thinks of the path taken by journalists and pundits. “If I cared about what they think of me, I wouldn’t be here a minute. A minute! Not in politics, not in business, not in journalism. If you’re a slave to what they think about you, they’ll think about you how you think of yourself.
“We’re very close to losing the battle,” he says. “We found a factor we hadn’t noticed until last night. That factor is that what we have here is opposite of 2015.”
“Whereas in 2015 the left was complacent and the right was enlisting to vote, today the opposite is happening. The right is complacent, and the left is enlisting to vote. When polls ask how many people intend to vote, the left gets 100 percent. Not 99.2-100 percent. Everyone is going to vote. And on the right, we’re seeing notable lower percentages than that. The difference in percentages is equivalent to about five seats,” he warns.
About 80 percent of right-wing voters are saying they are motivated to vote, and that could cost the right another two seats.
“With gaps like these, there’s a possibility we could lose the bloc, and the gap between us and Lapid-Gantz could increase by five more seats,” he says.
When Israel Hayom asks him if this factor is going to lead to a Likud loss, Netanyahu says, “We’ll definitely lose [if people don’t vote.]”
‘The other channels: Gantz TV’
Netanyahu came into this election campaign at a disadvantage, like a soccer team that is penalized five points just before the start of the season. “Team Bibi” has been playing like it has been not only been given a red card, but like the stands are packed with hostile spectators.
The bot affair brought the whole issue of social media up for discussion. For Netanyahu and the Likud, just how important is social media?
“It’s the only electronic tool we have,” he says.
“There is unprecedented enlistment by ‘Gantz TV’—channels 11, 12, and 13—and the various radio stations. Just total enlistment. One time, in one interview, someone questioned Gantz and immediately they were corrected. They basically ask him, and Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi, tough questions like, ‘Mr. Gantz, can you lay out your vision? They say you’re unstable.’ There’s no follow-up. If he falls apart in one interview with [broadcaster] Yonit Levy, how will he handle the pressure [of being prime minister]?”
When asked about the situation in Gaza and his insistence on reaching a ceasefire deal with Hamas, Netanyahu says, “You need to understand, we are surrounded by radical Islam. The biggest Islamist power is Iran, which is trying to obtain nuclear weapons. I’m stopping that. It’s trying to move its army to Syria under a nuclear deal that Gantz and Lapid supported. I’m stopping them there, too.”
Israel Hayom reached out to Lapid for a response. He rejected Netanyahu’s statement as “a complete lie that harms the security of the nation. Since 2014, I’ve been active in the international community against the deal. I have spoken and been interviewed in opposition to it dozens of times abroad, so it’s easy to verify. It’s a bad, dangerous deal that should never have been signed, and on this matter, I was aligned with Netanyahu. Even if we’re in the midst of a campaign, we mustn’t lie about security. The world needs to know that the vast majority of Israelis are against the deal.”
Netanyahu continues: “When it comes to the other branch of radical Islam, in Gaza, we’ve deterred Hamas. We shut down its main supply corridors. We’ve struck Hamas in a way the public doesn’t understand. More than 300 Palestinians have been killed near the border when they tried to breach the fence and abduct our soldiers. We have used force wisely and powerfully. You saw this deterrence on the one-year anniversary of the ‘March of return’—a lot less than million came, and there were thousands of [Hamas] monitors. It’s a sign of deterrence. Before I opt for a ground incursion, I’ll exhaust every other possibility.”
Q: Do you prefer intermittent rockets to funerals?
A: “I didn’t say rocket fire. A couple of arson balloons? To a large extent, we’re stopping it. They [the Gazans] are in enormous economic distress, and Hamas is in check and wants some quiet so it can stand up to the huge pressure in Gaza. The economic distress is its own problem, but the humanitarian distress is our problem. Issues with sanitation, disease, things that could make their way to us. So we’re saying: prevent problems from occurring and create deterrence. The goal is deterrence, but so is preventing environmental and humanitarian problems that could harm Israel.”
Q: No one is talking about occupation but rather an invasion that would rip out the Hamas infrastructure.
A: “It wouldn’t rip out the infrastructure. It would pound the infrastructure. The real choice is to occupy and govern Gaza. You don’t have anyone to give it to. I won’t give it to Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas]. The connection between Gaza and Judea and Samaria has been broken. They are two separate entities, and I think that in the long term, that’s not something that’s bad for Israel. Abu Mazen brought that upon himself. He cut back the influx of P.A. funds. He thought that by doing so, he could send Gaza up in flames. We would pay for the occupation of Gaza with a heavy loss of life, and on Israel’s back he [Abbas] would get Gaza on a silver platter. That won’t happen.”
“The money he cut is Palestinian money. Israel isn’t paying. That money was covered by the Qataris and stopped Abu Mazen’s plan from coming to fruition, as well as cutting Gaza off from Judea and Samaria. If anyone thought there would be a Palestinian state that would surround us on both sides. That isn’t something that’s going to happen.”
Q: In this election, you’re running against three former IDF chiefs of staff. Did any of them demonstrate creativity when it came to Gaza?
A: “Nothing. They were there. The opposite, if there’s anything new it came after they were gone. Blocking the attack tunnels, the subterranean wall we’re building, other actions we’re taking in Gaza that I can’t go into. Mostly, what you see is policy. What good are 10 generals if those generals, like the former head of the Shin Bet security agency or the former head of the Mossad, support the Iran nuclear deal?”
“95 percent of the problems come from Iran. They supported an absurd nuclear deal. Their policy is destructive to Israel. Gantz, as well as Ashkenazi, opposed the security fence in the south and funding for it. Without that, Israel wouldn’t exist anymore. We can talk about a Jewish, democratic state until the cows come home, but it would already have been flooded by a million illegal migrants from Africa.
“Their disastrous policy also includes uprooting 100,000 settlers. So what determines security isn’t the chiefs of staff, but the policies of politicians. These chiefs of staff had a policy that was wrong. If they become politicians, we’re sunk. They have almost no understanding, I would say less than zero, of these issues. The best proof of that is support for the Iran nuclear deal. Gantz said, ‘It’s all right, it has positive aspects. The Iranians are rational.’ Lapid said I was destroying relations with the U.S., that it was a mistake to speak to Congress. Sadly, a big part of the Israeli defense establishment supported it.
“What is important is who leads, the diplomatic navigator. I’m working against Israel’s greatest enemies. They aren’t. Unfortunately, they hold the view that is traditional with the Israeli left, that weakness is strength. That bowing one’s head is standing tall. That concessions and weakness will bring us security. Don’t believe that.”
Q: It appears that the current IDF chief of staff [Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi] wants to cancel the shortened service to make the IDF stronger and more massive. Do you support canceling shortened service?
A: “We’re talking about it. I don’t think we’ve reached a clear conclusion. The only clear conclusion is that we will need more resources, and I said that for the 2030 plan, we need more resources for the defense establishment. Why? Because Israel is facing threats from superpowers, and sadly we don’t have the GDP of Germany or Russia. By the way, our GDP is one-quarter that of Russia’s. That’s not bad, but it’s not enough. We need more resources. To get additional resources, we need to keep the economy growing, since it produces the resources.”
Q: Are you talking about a tax hike?
A: “The opposite. Tax cuts. Lowering taxes leads to more growth. Over time, I’ve led a major change in the Israeli economy. I’ve passed 60 reforms. But the most important, the decisive one, is freeing the currency, allowing people to deposit and withdraw dollars whenever they want. Imagine that Israel had kept up that third-world currency regime. There is also the issue of licensing for small businesses, which is the engine for growth in Israel. We dropped the time it takes to issue a business license from six months to 20 days. Preventing needless regulation. Do you want regulation? Show me the economic effects it will have.
“In three years, we climbed from 25th place to 17th place in global competitiveness rankings. Nothing like that has ever happened. Lapid and Gantz would send us back. First by bringing in [former Histadrut Labor Federation head] Avi Nissankoren as finance minister. Like statesmanship, they understand nothing about economics. Lapid said he doesn’t understand economics.”
Q: So how did you work with him?
A: “At a certain point, I had to fire him. He never listened. He forgot he didn’t understand. It’s all poses and performances. The same thing with Gantz. He has proved that by going bankrupt. He founded a company that went bankrupt, but not before it pocketed millions of shekels by a fake presentation it gave the Israel Police. They would have gotten 50 million shekels more if they hadn’t gone bankrupt.”
Q: Everyone is asking: Who are your picks for finance minister and defense minister?
A: “That is of no interest. I’m not dividing up the spoils, because of now, they’re going to them [the left] if the right doesn’t get its act together. If Likud voters don’t wake up, we’ll lose the election. The Likud/right-wing voters don’t realize that not only isn’t the election in our pocket, right now it’s actually in theirs [the left]. Because they are fighting tooth and nail. Our people are sitting around, sanguine. If they don’t realize that they have to go and vote, all our achievements will be lost.”
Q: You would prefer a right-wing government?
A: “Of course. A right-wing government is always preferable. These are our partners, and we’ll build a coalition with them. You also can’t build a coalition with people on the left. Four members of Gantz and Lapid’s party once signed a petition against allowing [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump to come to Israel. That shows you who these people are. Our combination of economic and defense power has created diplomatic growth the like of which we’ve never seen.”
“I was [recently] with President Trump. He declared American recognition of the Golan Heights. We have the declaration. Now President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil is visiting—the leader of a country of a quarter-billion people. I’m working with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, on freedom of action for Israel. Of course, the media ignores that, and just covers Lapid and Gantz, running PR pieces and puffing up their lies. And still our people, who see how involved the media is, are still convinced that we’re going to win and they can stay home. It could cause irreparable damage.”
Q: Can anyone from the right-wing bloc sit in a government under Gantz?
A: “First of all, everyone understands that the appropriate thing to do is give the responsibility of assembling a government to whoever receives the most recommendations. That’s what we should do, but that’s not necessarily what will happen. The moment the responsibility is assigned, we’re in a state of uncertainty. That moment, because Gantz would have a bloc of 61, you don’t know who will be recommended.”
Q: How do you categorize Zehut leader Moshe Feiglin?
A: “I don’t know. I hope he’ll support the right. He still hasn’t said he will. I see the right-wing government under the Likud as in real danger.”
Q: What about Trump? Is that chemistry between the American president and the prime minister of Israel, or with you personally?
A: “Clearly, it’s with me personally. I knew him before. His views match mine. They don’t match those held by the people in the Lapid-Gantz party, who wanted to keep him out of Israel.”
Q: On the “deal of the century,” are you coordinated with him?
A: “I’m not coordinated with him. I laid out three basic principles for him and his people. I really hope they are expressed in the plan: 1) We won’t evacuate a single settler—not only any settlement, not a single settler; 2) We will retain control over the entire area west of the Jordan River. We will have a permanent presence. That is the main sovereign authority that we will retain in any situation; and 3) We will not divide Jerusalem.”
“When I presented these principles to [former] Vice President [Joe] Biden when he was here, he told me, that’s not a country. I said, ‘Joe, define it however you want, these are my terms and I won’t retreat from them.’ That’s what I told Trump and his representatives [Jared] Kushner and [Jason] Greenblatt.”
Q: If you are promised international recognition of united Jerusalem, especially the Old City, would you be prepared to give up large parts of Judea and Samaria in exchange?
A: “I’m not willing to uproot any Jew. That includes settlements outside the big blocs. I’m not willing to forgo future sovereignty, not at all. They will stay there, under Israeli sovereignty. If we leave a group of settlements under Palestinian sovereignty, they won’t last a day. I would keep them all under Israeli sovereignty, with us responsible for security.”
Q: The election ads show a scene in which Labor leader Avi Gabbay’s main message is that he will raise the minimum wage to 7,000 shekels ($1,950) a month.
A: “First of all, we’re the ones who raise the minimum wage. It was 4,000 shekels. We did it in a smart way, by raising the GDP and the average national wage, so gaps wouldn’t show up too quickly. Everyone knows only part of it. They are reaping the benefits, I call it. We are the ones who raise the economic tree, water it, prune it so the sun can get in, and they only know how to pick its fruit. If all you do is pick and pick, you won’t have any fruit left. The tree will wither.
“That’s what happened with a lot of neighboring states. Even in Europe. You all know about these cases. We built a strong economy that combines a free market and economic growth with social sensitivity—everything in the right measure, and with success. They will revert us to the unchecked policies of wastefulness of the Histadrut economy.”
Q: Some claim that the state is in good shape, and the citizens are less so.
A: “That’s simply not true. There is room for improvement. There are problems. We need to break down monopolies that have existed since the days of [socialist] Mapai. Inequality has dropped since we created a situation in which people go to work. People used to stay home. Bedouin, with stipends for their children, never needed to work. The big changes that made Israel leap ahead, which turned it into a national economy, were made under me, both as finance minister and prime minister.
“The engine that turned Israel into a free market economy is sitting across from you. I still haven’t finished with regulation. Imagine a 65 percent tax rate. That’s what we had when I took office. What have President Bolsonaro and others told me? We learn from you.”
Q: You say that Gantz can’t be prime minister. But how can you? You could be a prime minister who has to split his time between office and the courtroom.
A: “First of all, I believe that won’t happen. Most of the claims have collapsed. The most serious claims have almost all collapsed. I’m convinced that nothing will remain of this house of cards. Second, I have unusual abilities. I’m saying it. Everyone who is with me, both in the cabinet and the government, will testify to that. My workload, my abilities to concentrate; everyone will testify to them. It’s obvious that I can lead, even in a situation like that. But it’s all theoretical. There is a reason why there is a law saying that a prime minister cannot be removed from office because of an indictment. Where would that lead us? Any functionary could bring down a prime minister.”
Q: Can you be with Putin one day and questioned the next? And forget everything while you’re working?
A: “I’ve proved it. I was under all sorts of investigations. It didn’t affect me. Even my rivals, in rare moments of honesty, said so. Compare how I’m functioning and what we’ve achieved on the Golan Heights, in Jerusalem, on Iran, the strikes in Syria, to what Gantz says, that this last month of campaigning has been the hardest in his life. What would he have to deal with [as prime minister]? An interview with Yonit Levy? It’s incredible. For a prime minister, any day—sometimes, any hour—is harder than this month. How will he survive it? The answer is: he won’t. First of all, because he folds under pressure, and second, because he and Lapid don’t have the abilities or the experience to be prime minister.”
Q: One of your staff said that although you gained the Golan Heights, you should have toppled Syrian President Bashar Assad and split Syria into four states.
A: “It’s regretful that there are people who serve left-wing parties in exchange for a place in the Knesset. It’s not honorable. It does them no honor.”
Q: Moshe Ya’alon, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser are all in Blue and White. Where did you go wrong?
A: “Ask them. Bogie [Ya’alon] told me he never opposed Oslo. That he had never been right-wing. Now he tells us. The others, let them be accountable to themselves. How can they support Gantz and Lapid, whose policies are 180 degrees from the policies they believe in?
Q: In July, you will have been in office longer than David Ben-Gurion. But you are criticized for not having deputies. You have no successors lined up. Do you see anyone who can come after you?
A: “I think the Likud team includes people who are way ahead of any of the other parties. They’re all veteran, experienced people, and I’m convinced there are talents there. It’s the public who decides who will lead Israel. Not the prime minister. We don’t have things like that here. In the non-democratic parties, they decide who will be what. They don’t care about the public. Whoever the public decides is who will succeed me. They are still criticizing us for being a royal regime. With them, it’s an internal dictatorship.”
Q: Kingly is better than fascist?
A: “More than fascism. I’m being accused of treason. I, who fought and was wounded in battles with terrorists. They always say that a prime minister mustn’t be accused of treason. Who knows where it will end? They do it every day. It’s amazing. The hypocrisy and the way in which the cooperating media accepts it and runs after them.”
Q: Do you think they still haven’t forgiven you for beating Shimon Peres in 1996?
A: “There are plenty of people, in the Likud, too, who went all soft before the left. They changed their opinions. I believe in my path, which I was taught by my father, and which I also learned from my brother— that we must strengthen our power. That goes completely against the views of the left. The idea that we can achieve peace by giving into the Palestinians and then the Arab world will open up; I took the opposite direction. I broke into the world, and from there into the Arab world. Later on, that could affect our immediate surroundings. That’s a different approach.
“They have been attacking me tirelessly for 20 years because I refuse to bow down. Now, more than ever, because it’s been proved that this approach is successful. Therefore, they are forced to disguise themselves as right-wingers. They hope that through this dupe, through their attacks and blood libels, they can bring me and the right-wing government down. Then they’ll retreat. If I wanted to, I could buy quiet and embrace the media. I would reach out to the left. I’ve never done it, and I never will.
Q: When you are told you’re a criminal and a traitor, does that make you bleed? Do you want the treatment President Rivlin gets?
A: “The answer is no. And the answer is yes. I’m bleeding. But I’m not giving up.”
Q: Are we at the end of an era, like in Stefan Zweig’s book The World of Yesterday? Where do we go from here?
A: “In my opinion, we’re at the start of a great era, in which Israel will not only take its place among nations but will become a nation of enormous influence. We can make all our dreams come true if we keep on this path. And it depends to a large extent on this election. The nation-state law is a constitutional wall against waves of illegal migration, especially from Africa. Should I change that for the sake of a few complimentary articles in The New York Times? No way. We must control who comes into the country. Entry is for Jews. Once here, everyone is equal. Everyone has equal civil rights.”
Q: A week ago, French Capt. Michel Bacos, who flew the Air France flight that was hijacked to Entebbe, died. From Netanyahu to Netanyahu, has everything been preserved since then?
A: “I don’t know. I’m not looking for fame and glory. I’m looking to do what is right to ensure Israel’s security and that Israel stays eternal. My brother fell in battle with the Entebbe terrorists. I was wounded rescuing the Sabena hijack victims. But that doesn’t prevent Israel from doing great, wonderful things. From time to time, we make a small part of all that public, like the daring Mossad raid in the heart of Tehran and the removal of their nuclear archive to Israel. It was an incredible achievement. Missions like these are carried out almost every week.
“There is great military daring but we need equally great diplomatic daring. The left says, ‘the courage to withdraw.’ The daring I’m talking about is to come out against Iran. To come out against a U.S. president. To say—enough. NO! And to go and bring around American public opinion. That’s a kind of courage that never occurred to them. For them, it’s a strategic mistake. An adventure. I’m different. I believe we have the strength to protect ourselves by ourselves if we foster our strength and not our weakness. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how many chiefs of staff there are if they don’t understand that in diplomacy, you need to demonstrate the same power of resistance and daring that you do in the military.”