It’s been a turbulent week. His partner in the unity government, Benny Gantz, was stunned over the severity of the prime minister’s attack on the people who led the investigations against him in the police and State Attorney’s Office, standing outside the Jerusalem District Court where his trial was set to start. Recent polls indicate, perhaps contrary to the intentions of those who wished to harm the prime minister, that the right-wing bloc has ballooned to 67 Knesset seats with the Likud holding steady at 41 mandate.
“I feel well because I feel I’m fighting for truth and justice,” Netanyahu told Israel Hayom from his office in the Knesset. “Of course, also for our country. This is something I do all the time.”
Q: In that speech [outside the courthouse] what you said can be taken as you saying that there’s no alternative to your leadership on the right, and all the other [politicians] are pushovers. But they were all standing beside you.
A: I didn’t say there’s no alternative. I said they [the left] want to topple me in order to remove the right from power. That’s how they think. And they would certainly be willing to accept someone—they wouldn’t care if they got someone from the right who was a pushover. Someone obedient. Who kowtows to all the nonsense they utter through their proxies in the media. Their mouthpieces. Absolutely.
They’ve been this way before. Who uprooted communities and were handled with kids gloves? That’s not me. Which is why they want to get rid of me. Because they think this is the way to take control of the right. Take control of the country. In the worst case, someone from the right will be the one doing their bidding.
Q: The oppositionist right is already accusing you of folding, because of the Jordan Valley issue of all things.
A: Folding? Did they deliver the prospect of sovereignty from the Americans? Who delivered it? For the first time since the establishment of the state, I’ve managed to secure American recognition [of our sovereignty rights], first on the Golan Heights and in Jerusalem, and then through an agreement that will facilitate American recognition in the areas of our homeland inside Judea and Samaria. These are [U.S. President Donald] Trump’s decisions, and the person who broached these matters with him was me. No one else.
Q: Of course. But they argue that a Palestinian state is hidden in this package.
A: Within this package is a historic opportunity for changing the tide of history, which was pointing one way. The whole time. All the diplomatic plans proposed to us in the past asked us to concede swaths of the Land of Israel, return to the 1967 borders and divide Jerusalem. To take in [Palestinian] refugees. This is a reversal. We aren’t the ones being forced to make concessions, rather the Palestinians are. Regardless of negotiations.
If they see fit to meet and accept about 10 stringent conditions—including Israeli sovereignty west of the Jordan River, preserving a united Jerusalem, refusing to accept refugees, not uprooting Jewish communities, and Israeli sovereignty in large swaths of Judea and Samaria, etc.—the [diplomatic] process will move ahead.
They need to acknowledge that we control security in all areas. If they consent to all this, then they will have an entity of their own, that President Trump defines as a state. There are those who claim and… an American statesman told me: “But Bibi, it won’t be a state.” I told him, call it what you want. At the heart of the Trump plan are foundations we have only dreamed about. All the things we are being criticized about from the right—and what am I?—these are things for which we fought for many long years and we’ve finally achieved them. Then they come with the criticism.
Q: Nevertheless, several thousand Palestinians live in the Jordan Valley. Does that mean they will receive Israeli citizenship?
A: No. They will remain a Palestinian enclave. You’re not annexing Jericho. There’s a cluster or two. You don’t need to apply sovereignty over them, they will remain Palestinian subjects, if you will. But security control also applies to these places.
Q: You’ve mentioned that this process needs to be done wisely. What does this mean? I understand you are concerned this move will lead to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
A: Yes, but the court at The Hague has already decided we are guilty of war crimes. We are defending our homeland, but the soldiers, leaders and clerks are guilty of war crimes because we dare build homes in Gilo or Beit El. It’s absurd. It’s a fixed game from the outset.
We will have to fight this simultaneously to fighting the coronavirus, and all while also fighting against Iranian attempts to develop a nuclear weapon. Simultaneously to applying sovereignty, we will have to fight against the challenge posed by the ICC. We must confront these outrageous allegations wisely and adamantly.
Q: Were you surprised by the sharp transition—from combating the coronavirus to defending yourself in court and the media circus surrounding the case?
A: Should I be surprised by it? They do this on a daily basis. Hundreds of times during prime-time viewing hours. Every time they take a leak and distort it, including in recent days. They threaten witnesses to change their testimonies or otherwise be sent to prison. It’s unbelievable. Crickets. These are criminal offenses. In broad daylight. Not a peep. The attorney general isn’t handling it. The police are doing nothing. It’s reminiscent of undemocratic regimes, and then when they criticize it and they turn around and say we are the ones endangering democracy.
It’s called incitement. Day and night, incessant incitement against me and against the idea of the rule of law as it should be. With its checks and restrictions and protection of individual rights. This has been trampled to dust. When someone dares complain about these dubious methods—he is suddenly the threat to democracy. In English you say, ‘Give me a break.’ Who are you kidding?
Q: But the tension in the street is palpable. It’s reminiscent of darker times, like in 1983 when peace activist Emil Grunzweig was murdered.
A: It’s constant, every time the right dares challenge this hegemony. The left’s thought police, with the media preaching to us on a nightly basis with its Soviet-style methods, bring this up, and they immediately send bodyguards over to protect the prosecutors and all their representatives. But I [noticed] that when there were hundreds of protests outside the attorney general’s house, no one said a thing. They never said this could end in a tragedy and whatnot. They gave it their full support and were completely silent.
The moment anyone from the right dares raise their voice, they immediately say, ‘civil war.’ Really. The violence—there is no place for violence from either side. It is unacceptable and abominable, but this isn’t the matter at hand. What is at hand is that most of the people are sick and tired of bowing to these lies and to the criminality of the police and state attorney’s investigators.
This didn’t start with me, but it reached its apex with me. And people understand that it wasn’t just me who was summoned to this [defendant’s] bench, but the millions of citizens who voted for me—whose vote they are trying to steal. To eliminate their democratic decision. And they don’t buy it. These bogus cases were trumped up for me and only me, not for anyone else in the 244 years of democracy on this planet. It’s unprecedented.
In 2015, before there was even one investigation, the Likud received 980,000 votes. Now, five years later, after endless investigations and a flood of leaks, drumhead court-martials based on allegations, and an indictment during an election campaign, we received 1,350,000 votes. An increase of nearly 40 percent while the population grew in single percentages. This is an expression of faith in me and a tremendous lack of faith in the investigators and prosecutors and the system to which they belong. This, of course, is very disconcerting to the hegemonists in the media.
Q: Have you spoken to your partner Benny Gantz in recent days? He projects national conciliation.
A: National conciliation is doing what’s right. After all, this thing, I’m telling you a very large portion of the public, and even among left-wing voters a considerable minority believes the things done to me, and through me to a very large constituency, have no place in a democratic regime.
Many on the left [oppose] witness tampering through blackmail and coercion, taking a person and confronting him with a certain woman during an interrogation, and saying to him, “If you don’t give us what we want against Netanyahu, we will destroy your family.” Or taking a custodian at the Prime Minister’s Residence who filed a sexual harassment complaint against another witness, and telling her that if she doesn’t falsely testify that Netanyahu sent her, they will send her to prison, and then that same person became a senior investigator assigned to my cases—people say this is not okay.
You don’t need to be a right-wing voter to understand that these things are unbefitting a democratic country. These things are dangerous to democracy and to the rule of law. The use of these objectionable tools endangers the notion of everyone being equal before the law, which is a pillar of democracy.
Q: The three cases against you are about contacts or discussions, negotiations, that you had with media tycoons.
A: Media tycoons?
Q: Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, “Yedioth Ahronoth” publisher Arnon Mozes and former Bezeq Communications controlling shareholder Shaul Elovich.
A: That word, “tycoon”… so what’s the question?
Q: What do you have against the media that is led by these people?
A: The media isn’t led by these people, and it wasn’t negotiations. You’re wrong. In one case, especially in regards to the newspaper we’re talking about, I blocked an attempt organized by [Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon “Noni”] Mozes to shut down [Yedioth competitor] Israel Hayom. I blocked it. How? Through these futile conversations with Noni Mozes, the purpose of which was to help me reach the point of dissolving the Knesset. I put myself at risk, and the [anti-Israel Hayom] bill was pulled. And indeed, your newspaper wasn’t closed.
What’s interesting is that dozens of Knesset members and ministers supported this law while I risked myself, but who do they put on trial? In exchange they received positive and favorable coverage from here until tomorrow in Yedioth Ahronoth.
They put me on trial for positive coverage that I never received. What are the police doing? Passing around materials and leaking things. They give material to their mouthpieces in the media and in return receive positively slanted coverage. According to this protocol, every politician and prosecutor should be put on trial.
The coronavirus pandemic
Q: I feel there’s this type of tsunami right now against the Finance Ministry’s exit strategies from the coronavirus crisis. You’ve mentioned the regulations and bureaucracy. How does this get resolved ultimately?
A: First of all, this is a national mission of the utmost importance. Secondly, every incentive must be explored. The money is there. The problem is how to use the money to ensure that the maximum number of small business and self-employed workers not only receive compensation for damages but also reopen their businesses and hire workers to get people back into the workforce. The way to do this, one of them, is to open the economy. We’ve done that. But [last Wednesday] there was a jump [in infections].”
Q: A quick inquiry with National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat shows that on Tuesday there were 46 new corona cases and on Wednesday another 16.
A: We said that if we reach 100 new cases we will have to reimpose restrictions. At the moment we’re not there. The virus hasn’t disappeared for even a second since arriving. The way to destroy it is by vaccination, and until then we’ll live like an accordion—we’ll open things for the economy, and close them because of infections. People are being less mindful of the safety regulations.
Sadly, this is the only true way to prevent this. Either there’s a local outbreak and you impose a local quarantine, or if the infection runs across the entire population, then develop tools to individually [digitally] test infected people and put them into forced isolation within less than 48 hours. I had a conference call [on Thursday] with seven world leaders, from Austria, Australia, Norway and others. Everyone said the problem is the challenge of success. People stop taking safety protocols seriously.
Q: Nevertheless, in terms of the budget—how can we do what the Germans did successfully, transfer the funds to those who need it?
A: Initially the problem was with the [Treasury’s] clerks—when the conditions for receiving the money were too stringent. Later on there was a problem with the program that was too cumbersome. We fixed this, too. Regardless, thus far 400,000 people have received [compensation] and there’s more to be done. The more interesting question pertains to who is eligible for incentives. They talk about incentives for employers. What’s the correct incentivization. The formula is correct. Incentivize them to hire back workers.
Q: From your experience in 2009, a less severe crisis, you found a way to restore economic growth. What path to growth do you see?
A: To completely return to growth, people need to have enough faith that we won’t see another outbreak. If people think there will be another wave, they will shut down. It’s like the lid on a pot. There will always be a limitation. Therefore it depends on how the pandemic is handled. We are making progress in two areas: Either vaccination—and there are scientists working on it, we have some of the best scientists in the world… but it still isn’t clear if and when a vaccine will be found.
The second thing is much faster testing. For example, a test you can bring to the airport and within an hour know if you have the disease or not. This is important because then you can mobilize a situation of more traffic, more transportation, and that drives the economy. It’s not a complete solution, because you don’t know if you were infected nine days ago.
This is what we’re trying to do. Advance both these things together. This will allow us to open up the economy, not to the previous levels but close.
IDF preparedness and Iran
Q: Former IDF Ombudsman Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik keeps reiterating that the Ground Forces are not ready for war, that something simply isn’t working in terms of the IDF’s organizational culture.
A: What needs to be fixed will be fixed. But I think the army is more than battle-ready. And that’s not the problem. I don’t think so. The main problem is that thousands of missiles are aimed at us, and the second problem is that Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons. I’m not sure the Ground Forces are the pressing problem. To respond to the threat coming from the sky and from great distances, I would first have to fight Iran and its entrenchment in Syria. Even if this contradicts the views of the experts and pundits who allege this is spin intended to frighten the people. Similar to the coronavirus.
Look at the chart here; at Belgium. A country our size. Soon they’ll have 10,000 dead, and we are here [Netanyahu points to a graph showing Israel among the leading countries in terms of handling the coronavirus]. As if [this success] is some figment of the imagination.
When it comes to defense, health and saving lives, we cannot rest on our laurels. As far as military security against nuclear terror, it requires intelligence-diplomatic-military action. Similar to the actions I’ve ordered, including the raid on the Iranian nuclear archive [in Tehran, carried out by the Mossad].
Q: According to some assessments, the Iranians are in dire straits, and if Trump gets reelected he will move toward an improved nuclear deal, and the Iranians will have no choice but to go along with it. What do you think about the possibility of another nuclear deal?
A: We maintain that the Iranians cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons. I appreciate this assessment, but Israel needs to be able to defend itself by itself. With all my appreciation for the United States’ friendship and the important steps Trump has taken, I am committed to Iran never acquiring a nuclear weapon. If Iran implements the 12 steps published by [U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo], it would be a development where Israel wouldn’t have to worry. I doubt the Iranians will be willing to accept this, to put it mildly.
‘The door to Yamina is open’
Various political pundits say the prime minister made a mistake by eschewing a fourth election, but Netanyahu sees the unity government as an achievement.
“The unity government represents a great basis for hope. It will pass a budget that will address the problems, and we now have a historic opportunity to apply sovereignty in parts of the homeland,” he says.
“I call on all members of Yamina to join the government because we need to join hands and not work against one another. I’d be happy if Yamina entered the government. We preserved the assets of the religious-Zionist camp. The Education and Jerusalem affairs portfolios, the [World Zionist Organization’s] Settlement Divison—I’d be glad if our friends from Yamina joined. The door is open.”
The prime minister believes Yamina will support the application of sovereignty, despite its oppositionist remarks. Mainly because that is what the party’s supporters want.
Meanwhile, despite the strong show of support for Netanyahu from senior Likud officials at the opening of his trial, many pundits believe the prime minister’s preferred “heir” is Mossad Director Yossi Cohen. The fact that Cohen is heralded by Netanyahu at every opportunity, they believe, points at the prime minister’s direction on the matter.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.