Recently I took part in a conference call with Benjamin Netanyahu on The Threat of Iran sponsored by The Israel Project. Netanyahu is a former Israeli Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and Finance Minister. As current head of the Likud party, Netanyahu is projected to be Israel’s next Prime Minister. I had the privilege to speak with him.
Rabkin: Benjamin Netanyahu, thank you for taking some time out to answer some questions.
Could we begin, in general, with your view of the overall situation we face globally today?
Netanyahu: Thank you for joining me here today.
Right now we’re in the midst of two great transformations in the world. The first one, I believe, is positive. The second one is negative.
The positive change is the global revolution in information, technology, and freedom – the choice that is given to hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people in the world to partake in the world economy. And this is, with all the difficulties and dislocations that are involved, a great hope for mankind and it is happening in our time. This is much greater than the impact of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. What is taking place in the latter part of the 20th century and the 21st century is of monumental proportions. It will greatly improve the material and general lot of man-kind, woman-kind, and children-kind everywhere.
There is an opposing force that has been gathering for centuries and was first unleashed in the late 1970s in Iran and then a decade later in Afghanistan. These are the blatant forces of militant Islam - blatant because they have been brewing for centuries under the surface. With an animus towards the very freedoms that I described they attempt to regiment society according to a very doctrinaire outlook of life under what is called a pristine view of Islam.
There are two strains to this dogma: the militant Sunnis and the militant Shiites. One burst out in Iran in 1979 and a decade later the victory of the mujahideen heralded the rise of al-Qaeda. If you look at what has happened politically, not economically, to the world – what has happened in terms of politics and security – in the decades that have passed since you see a clear trajectory of the rise of militant Islam. You see it not only taking over countries, which it has, but also sending its sway over many people in a very large continuum of Muslims. Obviously they haven’t been able to take over the majority, and even the minority is small, but the minority of a very, very large majority is troubling in itself.
Their goals are unlimited. Whatever their successes so far, they don’t intend to stop and they continue. They have been competing with each other – these militant strains of Islam – on who will produce the more spectacular successes for the creed. The militant Sunnis have bombed New York, Washington, Bali, and the European capitals. The militant Shiites in Iran are openly boasting that they are racing to develop nuclear weapons with the explicit announced goal of wiping Israel from the face of the earth and re-establishing the caliphate under militant Shiite-Iranian rule – a caliphate that includes the territories from Iran to Spain. They are developing long-range ballistic missiles, first that are targeted to every European capital and within a decade to the eastern coast of the American mainland. And in the process they are clearly meddling in Iraq, as the congressional testimony last week described it. They have already more than meddled in Lebanon. It used to be said that Hezbollah is a state within a state, it’s not clear that has not been versed. Hezbollah now has some 40,000 rockets, which a lot more than they had before the Second Lebanon War. These rockets are much more lethal and longer range and can reach a good portion of this country. And this is all done by Iran – it cannot be understood as anything but an Iranian operation. Equally, Iran’s proxies have already taken over half of Palestinian society – they have taken over Gaza and they are agitating to take more.
This is not merely a local problem. This is a global problem. Obviously if Iran acquires nuclear weapons everything that we have been talking about will pale in comparison. The power to extend power and the power to make good on their threats will be on a level that we have not seen nor one that we can readily imagine. It will put the oil reserves of the Gulf under their sway. They could easily bring down governments or fold them into their realm. They will inspire and encourage the radicals in the various Islamic communities that they are targeting around the world and they, in turn, will be inspired by the fact that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is a providential sign of the coming “victory of the true believers.” And, of course, they might make good on their listed ideas of ending Zionism. So this is a threat to the entire world and cannot be seen as anything but that.
I said a year and a half ago that the year is 1938 and Iran is Germany and it is racing to acquire nuclear weapons. Well, if that is the case, then we’re in 1939 now.
Our intelligence sheets have said that it would take Iran three years to develop the critical knowledge to develop a nuclear weapon. Now we have two years left because, as far as I know, they have not changed their assessment. So this is the problem that we all face.
The reason I welcomed the invitation of The Israel Project to talk to you about this is because it is hard sometimes, in the daily flow of events, to understand that something of truly historic proportions is taking place. There are two momentous processes taking place before our eyes that will be seen, in retrospect, to have been great transformations of humanity and they are competing with each other – they are like to rogue elephants charging right at each other. Everything from the freedom of markets, of information, choice that one side represents are rejected by the other side – and violently rejected.
So the question is what do we have to do?
The first thing is that we – by we I mean the civilized world – must to do everything in our power to prevent the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons. On this, I have to say, there is absolute unanimity in Israel. There is no opposition and there is no coalition, not only on the declaratory level but on every other level. There are no party lines on this and no party divisions either. I co-operate with the Prime Minister and with everybody else on this. This is a growing consensus. The clarity of the threat wasn’t always understood, but it now is and we have absolute unanimity. And I can say that in some of the leading governments of the world right now there is, equally, a growing consensus. It may not extend, as much, to the public because the public is not aware of the full dimensions of this problem, even though they have a very good sense of it.
So how do we stop it? Stopping it is the first thing we should do since the world will change for the worse if we don’t. But how is it stopped?
It can be stopped if sufficient pressure is brought about on the Iranian regime. Last week, I passed a bill in our Knesset which I think is the toughest divestment bill in the world. We took from all the divestment bills that we have seen in the United States and also things that were done by the Security Council and put them together and even went beyond that to make it a criminal offense for a fund manager, mutual fund manager, pension fund manager, or a financial institutional like a bank to knowingly invest in a company that is developing Iran’s energy sector or nuclear sector and we allowed for other sectors as well. We did this because we have been asking other governments and states within the United States to pass these bills and I am happy to say that right now I think it is about 8, 9 or 10 very big states that are doing this. It was a very big effort and I wanted to make sure that we practice what we preach. And again I have to say that this was uniformly passed – opposition and coalition joined together on this.
So this is the first thing that can be done: enhancement of economic sanctions. This can be broken down into two categories. One category is the curtailing of banking activity which is lead by the United States. And the second category is the curtailment of investment in Iran’s key sectors. The energy sector, by the way, provides the Iranian regime with 80% of its revenues.
There are also political sanctions that can be put in place regulating the movement of key personnel that are involved in weapons programs and others.
There is, of course, the other option which the American government has said should always be left open. I have to say that, paradoxically, the non-military options have much more weight and clout if all options are left on the table.
I think this is the minimum of what we must do and I believe that we could talk about many other things. But the central observation is that our policy should be that Iran must not acquire nuclear weapons. This is important for all of us.
The second point is that there are other derivatives of this and on this we do have disagreements with the (Olmert) government. That is the question of how do we stop the expansion of Iranian bases? On this we do differ with the government and if you’d like to ask me how, I’d be more than happy to tell you afterwards. But my purpose here is to try to draw attention to the fact that if we do not act time is not on our side. And this is something that can be stopped if we harness sufficient will, courage, and clarity towards this task. That very much depends on an informed public opinion because the thrust of the terror that we see today - that you cover in your reporting - is basically Iranian backed and inspired terror. The rockets and the other terrorist attacks are propelled by indirect and sometimes direct Iranian efforts. If Iran was blocked in this effort then the chances for advancing piece, in my opinion, would move a lot faster.
I just came from a meeting with both Steve Hadley, the American National Security Advisor, and General Jones, who is here trying to help along a mission to create some local progress with the Palestinian Authority. And I very much believe that these issues are intertwined. I have been advocating, for quite some time, something that I hope and believe may be moving forward – that is the rolling back of Iranian and militant Islamic influence by the creation of real progress bottom-up: economic progress and security progress that will make the life of the militants and their ability to recruit other militants more difficult. This is all part and partial of this great effort. The bottom line of which is that the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons must be stopped. This will in many ways cut down the potency and threat of Iranian backed terror.
Rabkin: How would you stop the expansion of Iranian bases in the region?
Netanyahu: How about some serious questions? [Laughter]
This is a very important question and I will do my best to answer it.
In advance, I have to say that I don’t talk about what Israel can and cannot do about Iran.
Number one, we don’t seek a war with anyone. We seek peace with all of our neighbors and that includes Syria, Iran and so on – everyone; certainly with the Palestinians. This is what we want.
When we speak about the security problems, we speak about the fact that we are being attacked; we are being threatened; we are being told that we will we be wiped off the face of the earth; Iranian backed proxies are establishing themselves at our doorstep and rocketing our people.
I don’t know how many of you were in Israel two years ago during the Second Lebanon War, but it is interesting to hear what Hezbollah and Hamas were saying. Hezbollah was rocketing northern Israel; they were rocketing the Galilee, Tiberius, Haifa, and so on. And when you ask them why are you rocketing? The say “because we are rocketing occupied Palestine. Mainly we are rocketing occupied Tiberius, occupied Haifa and from the south Hamas is rocketing occupied Ashkelon.”
We thought we confined their attacks to Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, the disputed territories. No, the occupation they said was every part of Israel. Most especially, the pre-1967 parts are considered occupied territory which must be liberated with the force of arms – the force of terror in this case. So they deliberately rocket our civilians.
That remains the core of the problem we face. The reason we don’t have peace, in my opinion, is not, today, a territorial issue. In many ways Middle Eastern politics and nationalist sentiment has been over taken by militant Islam. And militant Islam rejects any territorial or political solution. It wants the dissolution of the state of Israel. This is the source of the problem; this is why it is becoming so dangerous.
How can you negotiate with somebody who wants your destruction? What will you negotiate for - the terms of your disappearance? This is the kind of problem we are facing.
So I want to make it clear that we are talking about how to defend ourselves, not how to initiate conflict. And in so doing, I want to say that I don’t think that we are alone. Most Arab governments today – I am weighing my words carefully when I say most – fear that they too will be over taken by the rising power of militant Islam. And, of course, the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons will tremendously increase that power and thereby threaten not only Israel, but every Arab regime in the Middle East. This is not something that we have to say to our Arab neighbors today. Although it will not be admitted publicly, this is what they think – believe me this what they think.
As for how I would stop Iranian bases around us, the first thing is to not build anymore. If we have a disagreement today with the government it is that the promise of additional Israeli withdrawals today means that the IDF walks out and Hamas walks in; if Hamas walks in, the Iranians walk in with them. Essentially this is what has happened and not by design. I don’t think this was the purpose of neither the Barak government when it unilaterally and hastily left southern Lebanon in 2000, nor of Sharon’s government when it left Gaza unilaterally. But the result has been the same: a tremendous increase in the power of Iran’s proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. Hezbollah now has a tremendous base and you can see the international guarantees that were supposed to stop the flow of arms to them did nothing of the kind. We not only had 4,000 rockets fired at us from that base, we now have 40,000 rockets aimed at every part of Israel. At the same time, the same thing has happened in the south: we have a tremendous increase in the power of Hamas. It has not only been politically strengthened, but very shortly afterwards it militarily took over the Gaza Strip and kicked out the Palestinian Authority. They have developed a base now and fired 4,000 rockets at us since then. By the way, the rate of rocketing since then has been about 16 or 18 times what it was before - just to give you a feeling of the tremendous increase in the rate of rockets. And of course they are arming themselves also.
So we now have two bases that were created as a result of not having a partner there and not having some security arrangements. We withdrew, they came in and that’s what happened.
So the question is now what do you do?
First of all, don’t repeat the mistake a third time. Any territory we withdraw from will have an Iranian base pop up in its place. That is what will happen. We can stick to political correctness and pretend that that’s not going to be the case, but it will be the case. The reason that that’s the case is the endemic weakness in Palestinian society and the absence of sufficiently strong structure in society - not only leadership, but the society itself is not strong enough to resist the onslaught of Hamas and the militant Islamists.
So what do you do about it? Theoretically, you have two options.
One is repeat the mistake, close your eyes and hope for the best and it’s not going to happen. That is not something we recommend, to put it mildly. The second option is to do nothing. That also has its costs and I’m not going to recommend that either.
What our program is – and I’m glad to see, at least, pieces of it are being adopted by the American government and others like Tony Blair – is to create stability and progress in Palestinian society to deprive the militant Islamists of their recruiting ground and to create, as I call it, bottom-up hope.
How do you do that? Well, the first thing is you have to maintain security. If security collapses, everything goes down with it too. So we recommend that we (Israel) maintain security. If we leave it’s not that Abbas is going to protect us. By staying we protect ourselves and incidentally, we protect Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) as well – the goal is to protect ourselves, but this is a by-product. The second thing is that we have to develop a series of economic projects in defined zones and push them forward rapidly. They have to be, among other things, not only infrastructure – primarily, not money that goes to the regime – but actually market-based business projects. And I think we know how to do that and if we form the government – there’s a very good chance that we will form the government – I intend to work with the PA to develop that.
The third thing is something the international community has to do and that is to ask and demand of the Palestinians that they develop institutions of law and order, some judicial institutions, and financial probity – this has to be done. Otherwise, if you just have economic growth that money will, soon enough, flow back to terror. So you have to build foundation in society.
So you give security to the Israelis and Palestinians, you have prosperity and institution building in Palestinian society; and only then can you proceed to this corridor to a political negotiated settlement. If we just promise as a shelf agreement – like a supermarket where you buy something called peace off a shelf – it won’t work; it just doesn’t work that way. In fact you will be signaling to Hamas and the other militant Islamic radicals that Israel is already leaving; now it is just a question of pushing these people out quickly and you do it with terror. So the opposite result will happen.
What I am suggesting is putting the horse before the cart, not the cart before the horse. I think we have had enough experience already to know what works and what doesn’t work. We have seen the economic peace work elsewhere - in Ireland and I’m not sure that it isn’t working in Cyprus, even though these are huge problems. But what you see is that prosperity breeds a partial agreement, which then breeds more prosperity, which then breeds additional agreements. At least it gives the possibility to tone down the absurdity of the conflict and also to create hope. When thousands of jobs are created for the Palestinians – real jobs - and people are brining food to the table, wages are raising, investments are being made, that is what creates hope – believe me that is worth more than 1,000 international conferences and 1,000 shelf agreements. So that is what we would do. We think that the way for them to rise up is to develop bottom-up security and prosperity as a prelude to political negotiations.
Rabkin: What are your views on the recent US National Intelligence Estimate?
Netanyahu: I have been asked about the American NIE report. We have our own view of what Iran is doing.
I think there is widespread agreement among the leading intelligence agencies of the Western world – I’m not sure I would limit it to only the Western world – that Iran is galloping to develop nuclear weapons.
A few days ago Ahmadinejad went on a grand tour celebrating another 6,000 centrifuges. What is he developing? What does he have those centrifuges for? They are developing long-range ballistic missiles that have only one use – only one use. And it is not to carry cement or medicine. It has only one use (to carry a nuclear warhead).
When Iran has the second or third largest oil reserves in the world you know that energy is not the uppermost problem in their minds. So if it looks like a nuclear program and it smells like a nuclear program and it walks like a nuclear program, it is not a duck – it’s a nuclear program. And I think that common sense triumphs over here. But we also have a lot more than common sense to guide us and we are not unique in that respect at all.
Was it a momentary setback? Yes it was.
It relaxed international pressure and that pressure has to be brought to bear. There was a head of steam being developed in the Security Council – it was good and it was important; it was real pressure on the Iranian regime. Some of it was relaxed after the NIE report.
I think that now as people see Ahmadinejad celebrating Nuclear Day – you know he’s not celebrating nuclear peace, you know exactly what they are talking about – the world is coming back to a concrete realization of this problem.
Rabkin: There was an op-ed written by Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post last week where he discussed the possibility of the United States putting Israel under its nuclear umbrella and Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer made comments that very much sounded like he was discussing Israel’s second-strike capability (Ben-Eliezer, the current Infrastructure Minister and a former Defense Minister and Deputy PM, said that in response to an Iranian attack Israel would “destroy” Iran). Do you think it’s not unreasonable to begin publicly discussing possible strategies in the event that Iran does acquire a nuclear weapon? And what do you think of the option of Israel being put under the US nuclear umbrella as Western Europe was during the Cold War?
Netanyahu: I don’t think that discussing publicly what we should do in the advent of the development of Iran’s nuclear capacity is particularly wise. I think what is wise and needed is to make sure that we don’t get to that point.
Rabkin: If George Bush leaves office without having dealt with the Iranian nuclear program will he have broken a promise to Israel?
Recently you also compared Ahmadinejad to Hitler; do you still stand by that?
Netanyahu: I’m not aware of any specific promise made by the President of the United States to Israel. But I am aware of a general policy that President Bush has articulated many times: Iran should not acquire nuclear weapons. I think this is as much a question of his own policy as it is something that relates to us.
The issue of Israel’s safety is one that is uppermost in our minds, but – and important to our American friends and our many other friends in the world – this is not the only issue. It is merely the first stop.
Just as with another sworn and declared enemy of the Jewish people that I was asked to compare, it began with an attack on the Jews of the late 1930s, but it did not end there. We paid a terrible price which we don’t intend to ever pay again. But we were the first stop and you know what happened to the world – the tragedies that befell other parts of humanity when a very violent creed with messianic conceptions, no inhibition on power, no moral restraint on the use of weapons, came on to world scene.
In many ways it is similar today. There are differences of course – there always are. I will get to those in a minute.
The issue for me and for all of us is not just Israel. Am I concerned about the safety and security of my own country? The answer is yes, of course. But I am convinced that this is a much larger problem and a much larger threat and I think that the American president understands it in those terms. So it is a question of his own policies and the interests of the United States, not just its allies like Israel.
Ahmadinejad and Hitler are obviously different – supremacy of race versus supremacy of creed, different societies, different histories.
But, the use of unbridled power and the physical elimination of enemies takes place all the time. I’m not sure the world press is fully aware of what is happening inside Iran, but the physical elimination of enemies takes place all the time. People are being killed – murdered – publicly, not only quietly. This is taking place all the time in Iran. The imposition by a small sect imposing its will by violent means on the society at large for the purpose of outward aggression is the similarity.
The dissimilarity is that whereas in the previous case that regime embarked on a global conflict before developing nuclear weapons. This regime is first developing nuclear weapons before it embarks on a global conflict. So far what it is doing is it’s giving plan to its aggression by using proxies like Hamas, Hezbollah, and some of its proxies in Iraq. But it is, first, putting all its efforts in the production of nuclear weapons. There is the difference and I think it would make you judge which is ultimately more dangerous.
Rabkin: If Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons, do you think other Middle Eastern countries will follow suit?
Netanyahu: There are two possible responses to the Iranian race to acquire nuclear weapons. One is that those regimes, those Arab governments and others, who will find that this is not being stopped will begin to tilt towards Iran out of self-preservation and will try to cut deals with it. The other thing would be that some of them will try to, undoubtedly, engage in a nuclear arms race of their own. Some could do both simultaneously. Either way it is bad. If the Middle East turns into nuclear powder keg that is very, very bad. You really don’t want that happening in our world. So, again, I think the imperative is clear.
Rabkin: You have spoken about taking steps to improve lives in the West Bank to prevent it from emerging as another one of these Iranian bases. Do you think that part of that should involve a freeze on settlement activity in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and the withdrawal of outpost settlements in the West Bank?
Netanyahu: I think that the possibility of improving lives is real. And I think that the addition of a porch in a Jewish settlement doesn’t affect the quality of life in the neighboring Palestinian towns and villages. I do think that the fact that there is no effective policing there affects them: it immediately puts up roadblocks, it chokes commerce, and it is the reason that there is no investment in the streamline there.
I think in many ways the international community has had it wrong. They have been fixated on this model where a political settlement that involves all the things you are talking about and more will create prosperity – peace will bring prosperity. I beg to differ. I think prosperity will create the conditions for peace. I have seen it time and time again in a lot of, so-called, unsolvable international conflicts. The international community will try to bring the sides together and hammer two heads together to get a peace agreement and they think this will improve lives. In reality the very opposite has happened. And rather than trying to force the Israeli side or the Palestinian side to do this or that for a political settlement there are plenty of ways we can improve lives and make a political solution much more likely and indeed even possible. So that is what I would do. I am actually working on several concrete projects that I hope will be taken up before we even get into office.
Thank you very much for joining me today.