By: Shlomo Cesana and Mati Tuchfeld
After speaking to Congress on March 3 despite the objections of the Obama administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “a prime minister in Israel must be able to stand up even to our closest ally and tell the truth.”
In an interview published Friday by Israel Hayom, whose English-language content is distributed exclusively by JNS.org, Netanyahu said his speech about the Iranian nuclear threat was “well worth the cost of confrontation” with President Barack Obama. The White House had opposed the speech on the grounds that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did not consult Obama about inviting Netanyahu.
“What are we expected to do with such a fateful issue?” Netanyahu said. “Put our heads down? Go back 80 years to a time when Jews were forced to cower before the nobility? Ignore a threat of annihilation? Not demand action? Stop interrupting? I refuse to accept that.”
The prime minister said he believes his remarks “were very well received by the American public as well as the members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat.”
“I met with the Senate leadership after the speech and it was clear to me that the key points I raised had settled deep in their awareness, creating a foundation for debate and certainly prompting quite a few people to rethink their views,” he said.
While Obama said after the speech that Netanyahu “didn’t offer any viable alternatives” to the current nuclear negotiations with Iran, the prime minister told Israel Hayom that he “proposed two alternatives to the emerging deal.”
“One was my demand to increase the time frame Iran will require to manufacture a nuclear weapon should they violate the terms of the agreement,” Netanyahu said. “This can be achieved by placing tougher restrictions on the Iranian program. The second was to keep these restrictions in place until Iran significantly changes its aggressive behavior, including halting its support of terrorism and its calls to destroy Israel. Either way, under the existing deal, the sanctions will automatically be lifted in 10 years’ time and Iran will be free to build as many bombs as it wishes, and they will be able to do it in a very short time—perhaps even a few weeks.”
The following is the rest of Netanyahu’s interview:
Q: You have been fighting against the Iranian nuclear program for a long time, but Iran has not budged from its course.
A: “First of all, if it weren’t for everything I have been doing, and continue to do, over the last 20 years, even before I became prime minister, Iran would very likely already have a bomb today. When Iran began arming itself with nuclear capability, I took action and exerted pressure in order to bring about sanctions, even when I was in the opposition. We took a lot of steps to prevent this nuclear armament. The boundaries that I set also had an effect, but there is still a lot of work ahead of us. We are not done yet.”
Q: Obama has also said that he will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. How do you explain the disparity between your two positions?
A: “We disagree on how to prevent it. The deal that the world powers are currently promoting is actually paving the path for Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons. This agreement sends a clear message to Iran that if it honors the agreement for 10 years, it will be given the total freedom to use fissile material to manufacture an unlimited number of nuclear bombs. No one is confronting the reality that is inherent in the agreement. The biting sanctions imposed on Iran in 2012 quickly brought them to the negotiations table—something they refused to do as long as the sanctions were softer. Sadly, the interim agreement that was signed released some of the pressure off Iran. The Iranians do not believe that the West has the necessary conviction to intensify the sanctions—precisely at a time when biting sanctions would be most effective with the falling prices of oil. The Iranian economy would have difficulty overcoming that, and there is an opportunity to bring the Iranian regime to accept terms that it is currently not willing to accept.”
Q: Were you surprised by Obama’s response to your speech?
A: “The administration’s response came as no surprise at all, because that is their stated position. I was surprised mainly by the encouraging response of the American public and the response of American lawmakers, including Democrats, many of whom described the speech as ‘powerful.’ This speech raised issues and question that the administration has to address—that was the general response, and not only from supporters.”
Q: Have have spoken with the Saudis and other U.S. allies in the Middle East to coordinate a regional stance against Iran?
A: “I don’t discuss our contacts with the Arab world, but I can say that there is a very wide consensus among key Arab nations on the stance I expressed at Congress. I told the Americans that this kind of thing doesn’t happen often in our region—Israel and Arab nations agreeing on something—and when it does happen, they should listen.”
Q: Is there personal animosity between you and the American president?
A: “I don’t look at things on a personal level. There are a lot of areas where we cooperated with one another, and I mentioned them in my speech. But here there is a point of contention on an issue that could jeopardize our future. On this I think that it is the Israeli prime minister’s duty to take a stand, even if it comes at the cost of disagreeing with the American president. These disagreements have happened in the past, and will likely happen again. The question you should be asking is not of me but of those Israelis who don’t stand up to this danger, and don’t support this stance. They say that they agree with this position, but refuse to express it. The days when Jews remained passive and quiet in the face of calls for their extermination are over, and as long as I am prime minister of Israel, they will not return.”
Q: There is a coalition comprising Tzipi Livni, Isaac Herzog, Yair Lapid, and others who claim that they will rehabilitate Israel’s relations with the U.S.
A: “What does that mean, ‘rehabilitate?’ And allow Iran arm itself with nuclear bombs? Absurd. The relationship with the U.S. is strong enough. It will experience ups and downs, currently on its way up. The support for Israel among the American public is at an all-time high. The support for me personally has also gone up over the last year. We are not going to lose the American public just because we are standing up for ourselves. On the contrary: A prime minister who stands up for himself is often respected for it. True, there will always be those who think differently, but at the end of the day we need to stand up for ourselves.”
Q: Do you think that Herzog and Livni are not suited to serve as prime minister?
A: “Precisely. I think they are unworthy. They will not last one day under the pressure. They will not be able to curb Iran’s nuclearization for one day. They have already admitted that the moment they are elected they will go to Ramallah. And I know exactly what will happen there: They will offer the Palestinians a state that would see Jerusalem divided and be adjacent to Tel Aviv, similar to previous offers. They will offer Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas immediate territorial concessions and a second ‘Hamastan’ will arise. Then we will have a double Iranian threat: a nuclear threat and the threat of an Iranian proxy right here at the heart of Israel.”
Q: You have been accused of reverting to the Iranian threat to divert attention from economic issues in Israel.
A: “We have addressed the economic issue in a way that no government before us ever has. We accomplished a lot in the economic social realm. True, there is plenty of work left to do, but I would like to remind everyone of Israel’s economic growth, which already exists, which led to low unemployment that has been maintained here for decades. The number of employed Israelis is constantly on the rise. We increased participation in the work force, among the ultra-Orthodox as well. In addition, we built unprecedented transportation infrastructure in a way that hasn’t been seen since the establishment of the state. We broke up the natural gas monopoly and drove down energy prices, which in turn reduced food prices. We identified the problem in the housing market and we are planning to increase the housing supply by building 100,000 new units in lots that will be cleared for that purpose in high-demand areas in central Israel. We will reinstate the mortgage subsidies that [Finance Minister Yair] Lapid did away with. Having already lowered the customs tax, we will cancel the value-added tax on basic staples under supervision. This will translate into savings for the consumers. All these things will ease the burden and reverse the trend in the rising cost of living.”
Q: Forty-percent of Israelis have overdrawn bank accounts. What kind of hope are you offering these people?
A: “Our actions are designed to lift as many people as possible out of that situation, so that they are living in debt. More commercial competition, a reform of the ports designed to lower consumer prices, low cost airlines, cheaper mobile phones, and Internet—all this has already been done, and there is still a lot left to do. My aim is to enact as many reforms that will leave as much money in the citizens’ pockets as possible. We increased minimum wage twice. We brought more money into workers bank accounts and lowered expenses, and we will continue doing that.”
This interview was condensed from a longer version published by Israel Hayom.