NEW DELHI — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's comments that Israel killed the Oslo accords by saying that his remarks did Israel a service. Netanyahu, speaking to Israeli journalists in his entourage during his visit to India, also said that he supports economic relief for the Gaza Strip.
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However, Netanyahu added that the main problem in the enclave was "the failure of Gaza itself to take care of the basic infrastructure that people need, such as electricity, water and housing. That's our problem. When they talk about collapse, that's the infrastructure they mean. It is an absurd situation that the State of Israel has to handle the most basic needs of life, which are neglected by the Hamas government."
Netanyahu's comments follow the publication of a report in Haaretz Monday that quoted army officials as saying that the Strip is on the brink of economic collapse.
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The prime minister also warned the West that it was the last chance to fix the nuclear deal with Iran.
Regarding the escalation on the border with Gaza, he said that Israel's actions are guided by its security interests, and that Israel holds Hamas responsible for every attack. "The Israel Defense Forces does not bomb sand dunes," he added.
Netanyahu looked tired. Aside from the hectic schedule of the official visit, he has taken part in a number of nighttime votes and debates in recent weeks. He also had to contend with negative reports about his son Yair, who was supposed to come on the trip but ultimately remained in Jerusalem. At the start of the meeting with reporters, the premier asked for coffee, blaming jet lag.
'What we have been saying all along'
Reacting to Abbas' speech Sunday night, Netanyahu said that the Palestinian prime minister had exposed "what we have been saying all along, that the roots of the conflict are opposition to a Jewish state within any borders it might have. Not only the way he spoke but the things he said help us show the truth," Netanyahu said. "I think this serves our political goals more than anything else."
Israel can now fairly make the "elementary, logical demand" that the Palestinian leader change his position, or there will be no peace, Netanyahu said. Abbas did truth a service, and Israeli diplomacy too, the prime minister added – possibly because the Palestinian president is worried that the Americans will come out with a new initiative, and would prefer that they were replaced in their role as mediators.
"But there is nobody else," Netanyahu said: Abbas' efforts to get them removed from that role won't work. "For too long, the Palestinian Authority has been pampered by the international community, which didn't dare tell them the truth – not about Jerusalem and not about recognizing Israel. That has changed. I think Abu Mazen [Abbas] was reacting to that. This is the first time somebody's told him the truth to his face."
'Last chance to fix the Iran deal'
At the meeting with reporters during the second day of Netanyahu's visit to India, he reviewed the trip so far and took questions. The prime minister began his remarks by underscoring the "vast importance" that the visit has for security.
Asked about reports that he's trying to persuade India to reinstate a canceled sale of antitank missiles from the Israeli company Rafael, which was worth half a billion dollars, the prime minister said, "we're working on it." On security issues, Netanyahu said that he and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had discussed the Iranian threat.
"We have spent many hours together and much of that conversation focused on Iran, the danger it poses and the aspiration for hegemony over the Muslim world and Muslims everywhere," Netanyahu said.
Asked about the future of the Iran nuclear agreement, given U.S. President Donald Trump's latest statement that he will quit the deal unless it is "fixed," Netanyahu said, "I think it's the West's last opportunity to fix the agreement."
The Prime Minister's Office later clarified that he meant to say "it looks like the last opportunity."
Netanyahu said he has counseled European leaders to take Trump's words seriously. "Some thought he would never retreat from this agreement. I told them I suggest they treat [him] with respect and seriousness. After what he said on Friday, I think people are starting to get it, perhaps belatedly, that this is how it is."
Referring to his conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, Netanyahu said, "He told me, 'I agree on the ballistic missiles, the terrorism, Iran's aggression. But I don't agree with you about the agreement.' I told him, if we don't change it, the agreement will double Iran's aggression in the region and its ability to threaten France with missiles. They will achieve a nuclear arsenal. If the agreement isn't changed, that's what will be."
"That is why Trump's position is correct," Netanyahu said, adding that he's been preaching to that effect for some time. "He told me that he understand the superpowers have an opportunity here, I think the last one, to fix the agreement. I think the president is deadly serious that if the agreement isn't changed, he will make the inescapable decision. The main thing is to make changes that prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear arsenal without hindrance. I think this is the Western countries' last chance to fix the agreement."
'Tehran to Kfar Sava'
Speaking about an Iranian land corridor, Netanyahu said that nobody can stop a truck from driving from Tehran to Damascus. "My policy is to stop trucks driving from Tehran to Kfar Sava," he said.
"That doesn't mean we're allowing Iran to establish itself militarily in Syria," Netanyahu continued. "They want to bring planes there, they want to bring army forces, warships and submarines. We are preventing this in practice. What's preventing it is Israel – only Israel," he said, adding that Iran needs to understand that if it wants to advance its ground, air and naval forces into Israel's back yard, it will be met with opposition. "The decision whether to escalate is in the hands of the Iranians," the prime minister said.
Asked about ties between Iran and countries like India and China, with which Netanyahu is trying to improve ties, he answered gingerly, "We have an interest in maintaining excellent relations with India and China as well. I understand the sensitivities and we are discussing that. too. Our improvement of ties is not designed against any specific country."
Annexing the West Bank?
Netanyahu also fielded a question about the Likud Central Committee's resolution to annex the West Bank to Israel, noting that the committee could resolve whatever it liked, and the government would also do so.
The prime minister then said, "I support wisdom and responsibility and firmness regarding our central interests," which he said include protecting Israel's security and settlements, as well as maneuvering vis--vis the international community.
Asked whether the illegal outpost of Havat Gilad would be legalized after a terror attack nearby killed 35-year-old Rabbi Raziel Shevach, he said that this option was under consideration. He noted that in the meantime, the outpost has been connected up to water and electricity.
He then asked to share something personal with the reporters: a moment from the red-carpet reception, with the Indian honor guard present. "I thought how I was representing a people that was shattered to pieces 70, 75 years ago, and now I am being received here as its prime minister, with the respect given to a nation among the nations, and more," Netanyahu said. "It moved me very much. I think that historically, the moment reflected the Jewish people's return to the world stage, in many ways."
The city of New Delhi alone has three times the whole population of Israel, Netanyahu said, and "India contains a considerable proportion of the people who live on Earth. India is a world power and Modi is trying to advance it, to become even more powerful. He is going out of his way to demonstrate his friendship toward Israel and the personal friendship between us."
Netanyahu said that this is partly due to Israel's might – economic, technological, in security and in intelligence – but also contains a dimension of personal relations.
A number of economic agreements have been signed during this visit, Netanyahu said, and he anticipates more agreements on security and business in the months to come.
No passage to India
The biggest obstacle that the Israeli delegation would like to resolve involves red tape on imports to India. Until a comprehensive solution, such as a free trade agreement, can be found, Israel has given India a list of products it wants to be exempt from customs – chiefly, food.
The topic of upgrading direct aviation links also arose, as did the use of Israeli agricultural technology in India, which hasn't yet adopted all the advanced technologies, Netanyahu said carefully. "When I was the ambassador to the UN, we had no relations with India," he added. "There was structural hostility. In recent years we have changed that from top to bottom. There has been unprecedented blossoming since the moment I met Modi and we decided to upgrade relations."