Netanyahu: Israel Isn't Interfering in U.S. Election

Israel is presenting both Trump and Clinton with its positions, prime minister tells reporters. Rejecting criticism of delay in negotiations over U.S. aid package, Netanyahu says it 'won't leave Israel wanting.'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, May 2016.
Sebastian Scheine/AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday Israel would remain neutral in the U.S. presidential election campaign and avoid any intervention on behalf of any candidate.

Netanyahu said that although he is attending the United Nations General Assembly in September he doesn't have any meetings set as yet with either candidate, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

"We are presenting both candidates with our positions but are not interfering," the prime minister said told diplomatic correspondents. 

"There is no point in interfering and it's not smart to interfere," he said.

Netanyahu faced allegations of interfering in U.S. politics when he met Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, ahead of the 2012 presidential race, when President Barack Obama wound up being reelected. 

In Sunday's briefing, Netanyahu also said he was interested in having the main opposition Zionist Union Party join his government, citing "diplomatic opportunities." But he said there were no negotiations taking place.

"I have good reasons to want its expansion. The challenges are very big. After we pass a budget, there will be political stability, and we will need to work in a great many fields in which it's possible that important decisions will be required to spur the economy," Netanyahu said.  

Netanyahu suggested he would keep the foreign ministry portfolio at least until Isaac Herzog's Zionist Union joins the government.

"We are in a situation of a changing world – diplomatic threats and opportunities responding to which will be easier if the government is broader. As a result of this, I am retaining the foreign minister's portfolio," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu rejected arguments Israel could have achieved a better U.S. aid package had he negotiated earlier, before the Congressional vote on the Iran deal, as President Barack Obama had suggested. 

"I know what was really discussed," he said, adding that "Israel would not be left wanting."

"We are still in the process, and hope we are near its end. Reaching a military assistance agreement with this administration will send a message of multi-partisanship with regard to everything related to American support for Israel," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu's acting national security adviser, Jacob Nagel, left for Washington on Sunday for three days of talks to try to finalize the aid deal. 

Netanyahu said he had spoken by telephone with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about Kerry's meeting on Saturday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. 

Netanyahu gave no details about the conversation, but said he favored Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi's peace initiative over the French plan. 

"There is al-Sissi's desire to advance the peace process and for us it’s a positive thing," Netanyahu said.

The prime minister said the French were trying to involve many more countries in the process.

"I don't think there is any point in countries far from the region interfering. Countries in the region with an interest in this need to be involved. I want a process in which countries in the region advance the normalization with Israel as well as the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu also alluded to criticism by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid of Israel's handling of the threat of tunnels dug beneath the Israeli, Gaza border by Hamas. 

Netanyahu said he wanted a state comptroller's report about the 2014 Gaza war, expected to be released in the coming months, to be made public.

"We want all the truth on Operation Protective Edge to be out there," Netanyahu said. "That everyone will know about all our preparations beforehand and all the actions taken in real time. No one is going to bury the report."

Asked about the difficult economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza and the assessment of Israeli intelligence that the territory could explode in more violence if the population's standard of living did not improve, Netanyahu replied:

"The situation in Gaza is always problematic, [and was so] before Protective Edge." 

"There is no real governance there. There is no economy there. There is a regime there of 30,000 armed people who believe in their caliphate and don’t look after the population. 

"We want to prevent harm to the population as a value in itself, because these are people who are being held hostage. But the situation there is also bad for Israel, so I have directed that basic things be advanced that can improve the situation, such as preventing the pollution of ground water, a solution to the electricity crisis and preventing epidemics," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu said that while the security risks were too great for establishing a seaport in Gaza, Israel was interested in making the Erez crossing available for the passage of goods, in addition to Kerem Shalom. That process is expected to take about another year. 

Turning to criticism of his steps in the media market, Netanyahu said economic power in commercial television was too concentrated and that the field was not competitive enough. 

"Public broadcasting isn't propped up by competition but by government funds and by the taxpayers," Netanyahu said. 

"The question of a variety of opinions and representation of opinions is a difficult one, since we don't want to interfere with content or with content creators. The question of how to ensure variety is a difficult one. 

Netanyahu rejected allegations he was seeking to take over the media or harm freedom of the press, and noted how he often found himself praised in newscasts. 

"I see that I'm portrayed by the media as one of the region's rulers," Netanyahu said.

"When I turn no this or that channel I see praise for Netanyahu and those who oppose Netanyahu get satirized. How long can we tolerate such praise?"

In the press briefing, Netanyahu also discussed recent controversy surrounding the establishment of a new public broadcasting corporation to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Netanyahu clarified that an initiative by Coalition Chairman MK David Bitan to promote a bill shutting down the public broadcasting corporation was not coordinated with him and that he didn't approve it. Netanyahu also noted that several cabinet ministers have asked him to consider Bitan's bill but that he refused, pushing forward a bill which merely delays the launch of the corporation's broadcasts to January 1, 2017.

The prime minister also said that remarks by Culture Minister Miri Regev to the effect that the government should control the corporation were not acceptable.