A Yom Kippur Reckoning at the Netanyahu Residence

An imaginary holiday interview

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a piece of fruit as he attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem September 5, 2018
AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is feeling overall pleased as the new Jewish calendar year kicks off. He has total control over the political system, the criminal investigations against him have disappeared into the drawers of the attorney general’s office, the police chief who annoyed him is on the way out, and most important, the policy he has been preaching for 25 years is enjoying an unprecedented heyday thanks to United States President Donald Trump’s complete support.

The announcements coming out of the White House in past weeks sound just like Netanyahu’s speeches at the UN General Assembly, on Capitol Hill and at the Likud Central Committee. The decisions to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, withdraw from the nuclear accord and renew sanctions on Iran, cut aid to UNRWA and reduce recognition of Palestinian refugees, close the PLO office in Washington and warn the International Criminal Court not to mess with Israel all seem to be taken straight out of Netanyahu’s speeches.

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And as if all that weren’t enough, Israel also enjoys full American backing for its airstrikes in Syria and for using sniper fire to halt the protesters at the Gaza border.

Netanyahu is not giving holiday interviews to media outlets in Israel and it has been years since Haaretz interviewed him. I last met him about two years ago and yet I tried to imagine what an interview with the prime minister would be like about his situation and that of the country on the eve of Yom Kippur

Mr. Prime Minister, it seems there’s not much left for you to ask from Trump.

“I again want to thank President Trump, a true friend of the Jewish people, for giving Israel a diplomatic Iron Dome. Trump understands that Zionism is a profoundly just movement and that the Palestinian national movement is an organization of lies and murder. With his support for Israel, he is restoring the West to its golden days, when the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate document promised all of Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people; and he is rolling back the fabricated invention of a Palestinian people, which was created by anti-Semitic bureaucrats in the British Foreign Office and copied by Western governments since then. Trump has been bold enough to tear the mask off the face of the Palestinians and their supporters, and after the revolutions of the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war and the flood of refugees that is threatening to drown Europe in a Muslim deluge, other Western leaders and governments will follow his example.”

Trump and Netanyahu, 2017.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

You’re not worried that things will change? Sooner or later, Trump will be out of office, and meanwhile Israel is losing its supporters in the Democratic Party, which might retake control of Congress in the fall.

“Trump is giving us a unique opportunity to defeat the PLO and to shatter the hostile ideology of the Mufti, Yasser Arafat and Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas]. If we resolutely stand up for ourselves, irreversible facts will be set that will serve Israel’s interests. Even if the Democrats return to the White House in the future, they won’t close the embassy in Jerusalem and they won’t re-inflate the number of Palestinian refugees.

“When Abu Mazen exits the stage, it’s unlikely that a new leader will arise who will be as widely accepted by the world. He has no heir apparent, no elections are on the horizon in the Palestinian Authority, we won’t release the terrorist Marwan Barghouti from prison and I expect that the PLO will gradually wither away and disappear, despite the inevitable attempts by European countries to keep it alive. As long as Trump is in power, time is in our favor and it’s important to make the most of it.”

You don’t make many statements about the Palestinian issue. You prefer to talk about the struggle with Iran, or to be photographed with pilots and soldiers, without referring to their daily mission in the territories.

“The public sees me at the nuclear reactor and at pilot graduation ceremonies, or meeting with Trump, Putin and dozens of other world leaders, and asks itself: When our pilots are flying out on another mission in Syria, do I want Netanyahu there with the general staff and on the phone with the White House, or do I want Yair Lapid, Avi Gabbay, Tzipi Livni or Gideon Sa’ar? The answer is clear: Since I returned to power, the surveys consistently show that the public prefers me as prime minister over anyone else.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an Israeli Air Force graduation ceremony, June 2018
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

It’s all predetermined

Still, the conflict with the Palestinians affects Israel’s present and future more than anything else. Do you really think that the status quo of a blockade of Gaza and creeping annexation of the West Bank, including settlement expansion and security cooperation with the PA, can go on forever?

“My critics say that I’m only consumed with political survival in order to receive gifts from billionaires and to please my wife Sara. I suggest that everyone read ‘A Place Among the Nations,’ the book I wrote 25 years ago. If you do, you’ll see that my positions haven’t changed one inch. Already then I described the Israeli left as the heir of the anti-Zionist Jewish movements that denied the Jewish people’s right to its country, and explained how this position seeped into the core of Israeli public opinion and allowed the PLO to erect a terror base in the heart of our land with the help of the Oslo Accords. I am glad that today the vast majority of the public, including leaders of the opposition, understand that I was right, that there is no partner and can be no partner, because the Palestinians will never accept Israel’s just right to exist in any borders. I exposed this a decade ago in the Bar-Ilan speech, when I called for Palestinian recognition of the nation-state of the Jewish people, and again in the past months when we passed the nation-state law in the Knesset, which exposed the left’s ingrained opposition to Zionism’s very existence.”

Aren’t you concerned by the rift in Israeli society surrounding the nation-state law?

“There is no question that the internal consensus in Jewish society in Israel is the most crucial source of our strength versus the Palestinians and their supporters. Whenever Israel has made concessions to the Palestinians, we stood on the brink of civil war. We saw this with the Rabin assassination and on the eve of the Gaza disengagement. Today the internal rift and civil war are found on the Palestinian side, not on our side. Which is why I am adamantly opposed to any internal Palestinian reconciliation. Better for them to quarrel and for us to remain united. I’m not fazed by the reactions to the nation-state law. The position expressed by the law is accepted by a decisive majority of the Jewish public in Israel. Even the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid that voted against the law didn’t really try to protest or it to muster public opinion against it. The Arabs and their supporters in the far left were left alone with their PLO flags. The center supports the essence of the nation-state law and will be fine with it once it ceases to view it as a tool with which to fight me.”

Israeli Arabs and their supporters take part in a rally to protest against Jewish nation-state law in Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel  August 11, 2018.
\ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

It’s easy to portray Gabbay and Lapid as lacking in diplomatic and security experience, as men who cannot be viewed by the public as potential prime ministers. But what about Ehud Barak, your most scathing critic? His experience is indisputable, he’s been warning that you are dragging Israel toward the catastrophe of a binational state, and he did trounce you in the 1999 election.

“I know Barak very well, his abilities and weaknesses, from the days when he was my commander in the army and defense minister in my government. He was always good at phrasing things, but let’s get to the heart of things. First of all, without a political party or power, Barak is only helping me, because his Tweets and interviews reveal the shallowness and emptiness of the current left-wing leadership. Essentially, Barak is very critical and angry, but he doesn’t offer any other way that differs from my policies. The media is also frequently critical of me and my wife Sara, but totally supports my policy: against annexation and withdrawal, for the fight against the hypocrisy and anti-Semitism in Europe, in favor of cultivating a strong military and aggressive and proportionate use of force.”

‘Zero funerals’ policy

A few weeks ago, you presented the cabinet with the “2030 Defense Outlook.” Is that a hint of when you wish to retire?

“So soon? I suggest that you all be patient. I can sum up my security outlook with the heading ‘zero funerals.’ I experienced bereavement in my family when my brother Yoni fell at Entebbe. A few years before that, when I was in the army, Haim Ben-Yonah from Kibbutz Yehiam, who enlisted with me, was killed in action at the Suez Canal. At his funeral I met his mother Shlomit, a Holocaust survivor, and through her I understood the deep meaning of Jewish fate. It was one of the formative experiences of my life. I want us to have as few bereaved parents like Shlomit and my parents Benzion and Tzila as possible. Which is why we must strengthen the air force, our cyber capabilities, our missile defense systems and the security fences at the borders, and have fewer ground operations. Israel can achieve its security objectives and safeguard its soldiers.”

You’re fond of saying “I was right” and “I was the first one to see,” but often the perception is that you’re hesitant when it comes to making decisions, that you get nervous in crisis situations and end up getting dragged after your coalition partners, especially Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked.

“Ahad Ha’am spoke about two leadership types, the priest and the prophet. He described the prophet as one who is wholly and utterly dedicated to an idea, and the priest who tends to bow to necessity and strike a deal with reality. You in the media love the ‘doers’ who tout magic solutions to every problem, demonstrate mastery of the little details and cultivate a court of followers and personal loyalty. Think about Shimon Peres, Arik Sharon or Ehud Olmert. You have a harder time with ideological prime ministers like Menachem Begin and me. We think long-term, we don’t rush into decisions, we get up when knocked down and wait for long-term processes to take shape. They are loyal to doing and we are loyal to the path, and that’s why they crisscross from one party to another and meander in their positions, while I’ve stayed in place and waited for the public to come to understand the disasters caused by the Oslo Accords and the Gaza disengagement. I don’t have a court of faithful adherents. I don’t care if the defense minister is Ya’alon or Lieberman – the question is what is right at that moment. Bennett and Shaked? They carry out my policy and give voice to my positions and enable me to look moderate and responsible in relation to the defense and court systems.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Tel Aviv, Israel, May 6, 2018
Ofer Vaknin

President Trump likes to complain about the “deep state,” about senior officials from the Pentagon, the intelligence community and the State Department he says are out to undermine him. We’ve read about senior administration officials trying to thwart the president’s policy. Do we have a “deep state” in Israel?

“I understand Trump well. In my first term, I had to contend with an oppositional leadership in the army and the intelligence community, which supported the Oslo Accords and worked to foil my policies. When I came back to power in 2009, I encountered a similar situation when the chief of staff and the heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet then opposed a strike on the nuclear sites in Iran and collaborated with the Obama administration to halt the planned offensive, which I led together with Ehud Barak. They leaked nonsense about whiskey and cigars against us. That type of situation is completely gone now. The Mossad chief acts at my behest, and the chief of staff and head of the Shin Bet act in coordination with me. Everyone saw what happened to the police chief whom I promoted from the anonymity of the Shin Bet but who didn’t heed my authority. The leakers can go on Ilana Dayan’s show and talk all the poppycock they want. The public ignores them.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, November 21, 2017.
Gil Eliahu

Trump likes you, the polls predict a landslide victory for you in the next election and the security leadership accepts your authority. But you are also a suspect in three corruption cases, your former close aides have agreed to serve as state witnesses against you, and while the law enforcement system is grinding ahead slowly, it appears convinced of your guilt. Do you fear an indictment? Why don’t you explain to the public what happened, instead of writing unconvincing Facebook posts saying that “Case 4000 has completely collapsed”?

“I will meet your challenge. A majority of the Israeli public wants me in power because during my tenure terror attacks have declined, the economy is growing, the happiness index is high and the airport is packed with travelers. Before the last election, I was afraid of losing and wanted my press coverage to be less negative and hostile. Therefore I tried to reach a deal with Noni Mozes. When the contacts with him went nowhere, I saw that Shaul Elovitch, the owner of the competing site, was more open. Now people are saying that I harmed the public interest. Nonsense. Aluf, you explain to me the broadband reform. Hard for you to do, right? But everyone can explain why Netanyahu should remain in power. It’s good for the country, and that was all I ever worked for.”

Thank you.

“Thank you, and I wish you and all Haaretz readers and the entire House of Israel a Gmar Chatima Tova.”