Former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu said the “big prize” is “peace with Saudi Arabia,” which “intend[s] to achieve if [he goes] back into office.”
By Alex Traiman, JNS.org
Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year consecutive term as Israel’s prime minister came to a close just over a year ago, after successive parliamentary blocking maneuvers prevented him from forming a stable right-wing government.
What formed in its place was an unstable alliance including every single member of Israel’s left wing, and, for the first time in Israel’s history, an Arab party, that is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The blocking coalition which brought Israel’s significantly smaller left-wing minority from the back benches of the opposition into senior government ministries was empowered by a handful of right-wing defectors who hoped that preventing Netanyahu from taking office would later usher in an era of new right-wing leadership.
The coalition was led by “alternate prime ministers” Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, under a rotation arrangement. Neither had the parliamentary support to form a coalition on their own.
By all accounts, the government was a disaster. The fractious coalition did not provide the political stability its leaders promised. Even more disappointing to the coalition’s members and its supporters, Netanyahu, now leader of the opposition, refused to step aside, knowing that the improbable coalition was certain to crash. Crash it did, with Bennett resigning from politics after barely a year in office.
Despite being sent kicking and screaming into the opposition, Netanyahu remains Israel’s most popular politician by far, as well as the most polarizing.
In his brief time away from office, Netanyahu began feverishly penning his memoir, “Bibi: My Story.” The book covers his early childhood and upbringing, explains how he came to be known as Bibi and how he got the famous scar on his lip. It then covers his military service as an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal special forces unit, including details of several daring cross-border missions and near-death encounters, including taking a bullet in the arm from friendly fire during the successful storming of a hijacked airplane at Israel’s Lod Airport.
The 650-plus page account travels through episode after episode of key political and diplomatic challenges and events during his 15 collective years as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, from how then-President Bill Clinton openly acknowledged doing all he could to keep Netanyahu from first entering office, to a controversial address to a Joint Session of Congress warning against then-President Barack Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka the Iran nuclear deal), to the triumphant signing of the historic Abraham Accords agreements and everything noteworthy in between.
The book captures Netanyahu’s worldview and thinking on the role Israel must play, not only as a safe haven for a people that formed a nascent state following the horrors of the Holocaust, but as a beacon of democracy, burgeoning free market economy and emerging superpower.
“Bibi: My Story” is an attempt to reframe the narrative around Israel’s most successful and controversial politician, to tell his story the way he wants it told, following years during which an antagonistic, left-wing press drove the narrative.
And seemingly, Netanyahu’s greatest hope is that the final chapters of the memoir will only be written after at least one more term as prime minister of the Jewish state.
Netanyahu sat down for a wide-ranging interview with JNS, on his seventy-third birthday, in Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv to discuss his book, his views on recent current events, including the controversial maritime border agreement with Lebanon, the Russia-Ukraine War, domestic protests in Iran, the United Nations and the policies of former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, as well as of current President Joe Biden. He also shares his views on American election interference, elusive peace with the Palestinians, the possibility of full Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, the Abraham Accords and what he hopes to accomplish in a new term.
JNS: First of all, I want to wish you a very happy birthday. It’s a very auspicious day for doing an interview.
Netanyahu: Thank you.
Q: We read in the news this morning [Friday] that the U.N. permanent Commission of Inquiry against Israel, led by Navi Pillay, has just once again cited Israel for violating international law. You spent a lot of time at the United Nations as Israel’s U.N. ambassador. Is the U.N. an anti-Semitic body, and have you ever considered that Israel should potentially leave the United Nations?
A: Yeah, I considered it a few times, and I actually stopped the payments to the U.N. after one particularly egregious anti-Israel move that they made. But the best news I have is the best advice I got was from the Lubavitcher Rebbe [Menachem Mendel Schneerson], who told me shortly after I came there … “You’re going into the House of Lies.” That’s how he called it, “the House of Lies.”
[He said,] “And remember that even in the darkest hall, if you light one candle of truth, its light will be seen far and wide,” and he told me, “That’s your job, to light the candle of truth before the peoples of the world.”
Well, I tried to do that, and you can use the podium in the U.N. to do exactly that. In other words, they lie about us, they slander us, they vilify us, but we can also point out the truth to the representatives of the nations and public opinion around the world. It’s a good podium. It’s a good bully podium, actually. I bullied quite a lot there.
Q: You write in your book about how the Clinton administration organized efforts to try to keep you from becoming the Prime Minister of Israel. [Isaac] “Bougie” Herzog, who used to lead the Labor Party, had the V15 organization, which was supported by many Obama consultants, to try to prevent you from retaining office…
A: Well, with the State Department funds; it’s even worse.
Q: Now, Herzog is the president of Israel and he’s about to travel to the United States just days before a general election. Are you concerned about potential U.S. election interference and what would be your advice to Herzog on this trip?
A: I don’t have to give him advice. He’s sufficiently worldly and experienced not to need it. But would I say that American administrations have tried to intervene, especially against me? The answer is yes. Clinton openly admitted it. And again, under President Obama, the State Department gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to NGOs working to topple my government. There’s no question. In an election campaign. Was that effective? I don’t think so, but I would advise them not to do it. I don’t do it. I don’t intervene in American elections. They shouldn’t intervene in ours.
‘Would I say that American administrations have tried to intervene, especially against me? The answer is yes… Under President Obama, the State Department gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to NGOs working to topple my government… I don’t intervene in American elections. They shouldn’t intervene in ours.’
Q: When the Russia-Ukraine war began, then Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was very careful to take a neutral stance on the conflict. Current Prime Minister Yair Lapid has been more vocal in his support of the Ukraine and his condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s attack. You probably know Vladimir Putin better than most world leaders. What do you think Israel’s position should be in the Russia-Ukraine conflict?
A: Well, there are two issues. One is Israel’s relationship with Russia vis-a-vis our conflict with Iran over the skies of Syria. We’re flying side by side and preferably not bumping into each other with the Russian Air Force. Our pilots and Russian pilots literally see each other [from] their cockpits. So we want to avoid a conflict with them. And I’ve taken pains to do that.
On the Ukraine matter, I think there’s no question there is a horrible tragedy taking place there. It shouldn’t have taken place. It shouldn’t have happened, but it is happening. And the current Israeli government has used words but has not actually done anything beyond the humanitarian level. Which I think is important—they’ve done important stuff on the humanitarian side, taken in more refugees, Jews and non-Jews, proportionately, probably than most if not all countries in the world. But I can say that the question that will really come to my desk if I become the prime minister would be the question of Israeli arms. And I’ve said that I will look into that when I get all the information. And when I sit behind that desk, I’ll look into it and then I’ll decide.
Q: You were involved in attempting to negotiate a maritime border agreement with the Lebanese for close to 10 years. Suddenly Yair Lapid becomes the prime minister. The formula of the negotiations completely changes and he’s able to quickly close an agreement. How?
A: The formula of the negotiations? It’s called capitulation, not formula for negotiations. Have you become a diplomat? They gave up, unilaterally, everything that we were fighting for; 20 times the area of greater Tel Aviv. They just ceded it to the Lebanese, who were amazed. They couldn’t believe that they were getting this bonanza of economic waters and gas and so on. And you can argue whatever you want to argue about it, but there are two things: First, common sense and common practice dictates that they bring it to the Knesset—and they wouldn’t do it—for approval. And second, and that’s the worst—you can’t argue this—this deal was done after Nasrallah, the leader of his Hezbollah, sent drones, attack drones, against our gas fields in the Mediterranean, with a clear threat, a spoken threat in which he said, “I’ll make Israel give us everything we demand by the threat of our arms.” That I think is the worst thing about this deal.
‘The capitulation under a terrorist threat by a terrorist chieftain, I think is just a horrible blow to our deterrence. And I’ll have to restore our deterrence, as I always do after a leftist government.’
Q: Did you see a formula where Israel could have kept the Qana Reservoir?
A: Yeah, well we certainly could have gotten a better deal. That’s why we didn’t have an agreement—because Hezbollah, for 10 years, was asking for what they just got, and we wouldn’t give it to them. Now, in three months, [Lapid] just capitulated. But the capitulation, under a terrorist threat by a terrorist chieftain, I think is just a horrible blow to our deterrence. And I’ll have to restore our deterrence, as I always do after a leftist government. I’ll have to restore our deterrence if I come into office in two weeks.
Q: In the third election cycle, you pledged to fully annex the Jordan Valley to Israel. Then it kind of got thrown in with the signing of the Abraham Accords, where you agreed to suspend the annexation. What happened?
A: No, I didn’t agree to suspend. I had an agreement to have Israeli law applied—or annexation, as it’s popularly called—in the Jordan Valley and a third of Judea/Samaria/the West Bank and areas that everybody knew would remain in Israel. People describe them as isolated settlements and so on. They’re not isolated. I mean, 90% of the Jews, of the Israeli citizens who live in Judea and Samaria, live in suburbs. They’re no different from Georgetown to Washington or Brentwood to Los Angeles—suburbs of our major cities—and the remainder live in a few points that are really minuscule and not significant [in size].
So I said, they’re going to stay there as part of Israel in any case. Half of Jerusalem is defined wrongly as a settlement, until, by the way, the United States changed that recently under Trump. They [also] recognized the legitimacy of Israeli so-called settlements.
The reality is that a third of [Judea and Samaria, commonly known as the West Bank], which includes biblical sites, strategic sites, and Jewish suburbs of our major cities, they’re going to stay in Israel no matter what. We’d like more—possibly everything—but that’s not the point. The point is everybody recognized this part will stay, so why not recognize it the way Trump recognized Jerusalem as our capital? And it’s been that way for 3,000 years since King David; so why not recognize this reality too?
And I thought that I would act on that, but I didn’t want to act on it without an agreement with an American administration because otherwise it would flare up to an international crisis that was not warranted.
We had an agreement to do that. We didn’t surprise the president. We exchanged letters to that effect. On the eve of discussing the Trump plan, the president himself spoke about it. And then, not minutes later but a couple of hours later, I was surprised because this understanding didn’t hold. The American government backed off. You can ask them why they backed off. But I would still try—and I will try—to resume that course if I get elected, and to get America to recognize that this moves peace forward.
The reason you don’t have peace with the Palestinians is because they refuse to recognize Israel under any boundary, for a century now. Whereas the other Arab countries we’ve made peace deals with basically embraced the idea of the Jewish state. As long as [the Palestinians] cling to the unrealistic assumption that we’re going to dismantle half of Jerusalem and dismantle these suburbs, you ain’t gonna get peace. You’re going to get nothing. You cannot build peace in the Middle East on fantasy. Any peace built on lies and fantasy will founder on the rocks of Middle Eastern realities.
It’s about time to recognize what is going to be. What is [currently] there, and what is going to be.
Q: It appears that one of the major components of the Abraham Accords was that the Palestinian negotiation track was completely sidelined in those normalization agreements. When the Negev Forum Summit took place in February in Israel, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was here and he said very publicly that the Abraham Accords “were no substitute for a peace agreement” with the Palestinians.
A: I didn’t say they’re a substitute, but is there a prerequisite? That is, do the Palestinians have a veto? Because that’s what they had for a quarter of a century. After our initial peace treaties with Egypt and with Jordan, for 25 years—a quarter of a century—we had nothing. Because everybody said, “First, you have to make peace with the Palestinians.” That’s kind of hard, because the Palestinians aren’t interested in peace with Israel. They’re interested in peace without Israel. They don’t want a state next to Israel. They want a state instead of Israel.
‘Palestinians aren’t interested in peace with Israel. They’re interested in peace without Israel. They don’t want a state next to Israel. They want a state instead of Israel.’
So, if you wait for the Palestinians, you’re never going to have peace with other Arab countries because they will veto it. Which they did. I got around that, because I said, “Peace doesn’t go through the Palestinian seat of government in Ramallah, it goes around it.” And I went directly to the Arab states, and we made four peace agreements with four Arab states in four months.
Well, obviously with a lot of clandestine meetings and preparations before it.
But that just goes to show that if you wait for the Palestinians, you’re not going to get peace. You’re going to get stagnation and ultimately war. If you go around the Palestinian rejectionists, and go to the Arab world first and get the 99 percent; then [you can] come back to the one percent. Don’t let the one or two percent of the Palestinians wag the body of the Arab world, which is what American policy and Western policy in the main was doing for so many years. For decades. It’s just silly, and wrong, and proven wrong.
Q: You mentioned the four historic normalization agreements with Muslim-majority countries. Why do you think that you and the leaders of those countries didn’t get a Nobel Peace Prize for that accomplishment?
A: Oh God. I don’t know. For God’s sake, [Palestinian Liberation Organization founder Yasser] Arafat got the Peace Prize. I mean, the preeminent terrorist of our time gets the Peace Prize. After he gets the Peace Prize, he launches a wave of suicide bombings to claim the lives of over a thousand Israelis. So I don’t think much of the Peace Prize, and I’m not particularly concerned with not having received it. And I think history is a better judge of contributions to peace than a politically correct committee in Scandinavia.
Q: Working together with President Trump, you accomplished more, possibly, than any pair of president and prime minister had accomplished for the State of Israel in such a short period. What do you think that you could have accomplished had both your administration and the Trump administration remained in office for a few more years?
A: First of all, I think we could have accomplished more in the years we were there, because we spent three years going down the rabbit hole of a Palestinian peace, only to discover that they don’t want peace. I knew that in advance, but it took a while to persuade the Trump administration.
But in my first meeting with President Trump—and I describe this in my book—I said, “There are four peace treaties to be had right away if we pursue them.” And we waited until the fourth year and happily achieved these four historic peace accords—the Abraham Accords. But I think the big prize is peace with Saudi Arabia, which I intend to achieve if I go back into office. And I think there’s a chance I will achieve it, because I think Saudi Arabia and many of the other Arab countries who haven’t yet made peace with us know that I’m absolutely committed to preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons, which is something that they are keenly interested in.
The big prize is peace with Saudi Arabia, which I intend to achieve if I go back into office.
And so I think there’s a correlation between the rise of Iran and the rise of Israel. The rise of Israeli power facilitated the Abraham Accords, and the continual nurturing of Israeli power will also nurture a broader peace with Saudi Arabia and nearly all of the rest of the Arab world. I intend to bring the Arab-Israeli conflict to a close.
Q: You write extensively in the book about how President Obama tried to prevent you from taking military action against the Iranian nuclear program. Then, you had several years in which President Trump was in office. Assuming he didn’t give you a green light to attack, he still probably would have provided the best diplomatic cover that a U.S. president could have provided for such a strike. Do you regret not launching an attack on Iran during the Trump years?
A: No. I think we did a lot of things, that I can’t itemize. One thing has been public; I sent the Mossad to the heart of Tehran and we pilfered the Iranian secret atomic archive, which I think revealed to the world how much Iran is lying. And also revealed some secret nuclear installations, which now Iran refuses to have inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency. We did a lot of things that I won’t get into, that in fact delayed the Iranian nuclear program. But the task is still before us. I don’t circle away from it, on the contrary. That’s the other major reason I want to go back into office; to roll back Iran’s nuclear program. And I think we have the means to do it.
We did a lot of things that I won’t get into, that in fact delayed the Iranian nuclear program… That’s the other major reason I want to go back into office; to roll back Iran’s nuclear program. And I think we have the means to do it.
Q: In the book, you often write about Obama as if he is an antagonist. But you’re very careful to be much friendlier towards then vice president, and now president, Joe Biden. And it is clear that he does exhibit some deep sentiment towards the Jewish state. But you quote Biden saying, “Bibi, I love you, but I don’t agree with a word you say,” to which you reply, “On many occasions, the feeling was mutual.” Are Biden’s policies actually very different from Obama’s?
A: I think on the question of Iran, it remains to be seen. I think the pursuit of the nuclear agreement with a regime that oppresses its people brutally… And I have to take my hat off to the brave men and brave women of Iran. They’re incredible. And they show you, they reveal what this regime is really about. Now, you’re going to give a radical Islamist regime that chants “Death to America” the means for mass annihilation? That’s crazy. But that’s what this deal [the new nuclear agreement with Iran] does. And I said to Joe Biden, “I think it’s a mistake to go for this deal, at most it would delay this program by a year or two. But it would pave its way with gold, with hundreds of billions of dollars of sanctions relief that Iran could use to build a mighty nuclear arsenal and also to foment its terror and aggression, not only in the Middle East, but worldwide. Don’t do that.”
And this is a point of disagreement. And I hope right now that [the Biden administration] is having second thoughts. Obama didn’t—he went right ahead. And I think that was a source of conflict. And I appreciated the fact that I had some points of agreement with him, but there was a fundamental point of disagreement. Sure, about the Palestinians, but more so and dramatically so on the question of this dangerous nuclear deal that paves Iran’s path to the bomb with gold. So, I was against it.
It threatens my country, and I had to take a very difficult decision, which I deliberated considerably about, whether to go into the U.S. Congress [and address a] Joint Session of Congress, to speak up against a deal being promoted by a sitting American president. And normally I wouldn’t do that, but I decided my country’s very survival was on the line, so I did it.
Q: You write in the book about how President Obama “waxed lyrical about soft power.” And you counter that “hard power is even better.” You write that developing Israel’s hard-power capacity “was the central mission of your years in office.” Now, the Palestinians don’t have hard power as compared to Israel. But they have launched and organized a global soft power campaign of delegitimization against Israel. Do you think that the delegitimization campaign against Israel represents an existential threat?
A: I think it’s dangerous, but I also want to put it in proportion. Remember the Arab boycott, that was supposed to boycott Israel? Well, the hard power of Israeli economic power and technology made the boycott absurd. Nobody can boycott Israel, because you boycott yourself. You have a cellular phone in your hand—who doesn’t? Half of it is made in Israel. Half of the software is made in Israel. You drive a car? You use the GPS navigational system? You use Waze? That’s made in Israel. And so on. Medicines and other things that serve humanity. The economic boycott has crashed in the face of Israeli power.
‘The most important power that we need to delegitimize the delegitimizers is the internal conviction of the justice of our cause, presented forcefully.’
And let me tell you something: The delegitimization was also crashed in the face of Israeli power. But the most important power that we need to delegitimize the delegitimizers is the internal conviction of the justice of our cause, presented forcefully. They call us colonists? We’re not the Belgians in the Congo. We’re not the Dutch in Indonesia. We’re Jews, for God’s sake. We came from Judea. We’ve been attached to this land for 3,500 years. From the time Abraham came here. You remember Abraham? You know what the name of his grandson was? Benjamin. That’s my name. We’re here, we’re rooted here.
And it’s the Arabs who invaded this country in the seventh century and depopulated it. And we brought it back to life after years of tremendous neglect to the benefit of both its Arab and Jewish residents alike. I think the most important thing is that we believe in the justice of our cause. And I’m delighted that there are hundreds of millions of people around the world, evangelical Christians and others, who know the truth and fight back this slander.
Q: Now, Israel shares many liberal values with the West. But Western society, both in the Europe and in the United States, appears to be on a downward trajectory, not just economically, but even the moral foundations of these places are being challenged. Are you worried about the shifting of the global balance of power?
A: Yes, I am. I often say soft power isn’t enough, because I think you need hard power to buttress it. And without it, soft power of culture, of values and so on is largely useless. You had the Mongol Empire, which wasn’t exactly dedicated to human rights, control a good chunk of the world with overwhelming power. The Roman Empire did the same, and Hitler almost did it. If he had gotten an atomic bomb early enough, he would’ve done the same. So soft power without hard power is not enough.
But soft power is also necessary in the sense of recommitting ourselves to what it is we’re fighting for. And I think you need a union of the like-minded countries, the democratic countries—shorn of the progressive radicals that basically undermine the fundamental values of our societies. The progressive, extreme radicals who hate Israel in the United States, also hate America and the traditional values that guided it. And I think that this is something that doesn’t bode well for our countries.
But, you asked me about the future of our civilization. I think I tend to come out on the more optimistic side because I think that what happens to people who sort of lose track of where they are and what keeps them together, they get mugged by reality. And Churchill said that democracies tend to slumber until they’re awakened by the jarring gong of danger. Well, we can see a lot of jarring gongs of danger waking us up, and I think we will wake up. I don’t think we in Israel need to be woken up. But I think collectively, yes, we are challenged. But I have faith that the values of freedom and democracy will overcome if we couple them with a belief in their importance, and [use] the military and economic strength to back them up in the face of those who challenge them.
Q: You talk about the economy. The U.S. economy has been declining, yet Israel has in many ways tied the strength of its own currency to the U.S. dollar by buying over $200 billion of foreign currency reserves. The Central Bank of Israel has been raising interest rates alongside a rise in interest rates in the United States. Do you think that Israel should be tying its economic success to the dollar, or should Israel be taking different fiscal policies?
A: No, I don’t think we should tie it to anything. First of all, I liberated the Israeli currency. You couldn’t take out $200. Well, you could, $2,000 or something like that, without getting a clearance from the Central Bank. I opened up all the foreign exchange rates. I instituted a free market revolution, which was very tough, and I describe it in detail in the book. So as a result, Israel, under these free market reforms, now has its GDP per capita, income per capita, has now taken over past Britain, France, Japan and most recently Germany. So Israel’s become a fairly wealthy country because of these free market reforms. And I think you need to peg the shekel to free market reforms because we still have a lot of bureaucracy, and you know what that is? That’s a growth engine. You know why? Because when you remove it, the economy jumps up for another decade. And I think Israel can be one of—perhaps among the top five wealthiest countries in the world.
Q: Now, in the last election cycle, Naftali Bennett basically turned against the will of his right-wing voters, and he formed a government together with every single member of Israel’s left wing and also with…
A: The Muslim Brotherhood.
Q: Right. Now, some members of the right-wing camp suggest that if you do cross the magic threshold of 61, that you also might form a government with members of the center and the left, as you have done several times in the past. What kind of guarantee can you give to the voters that you would form a right-wing government?
A: Well, that’s the first thing that I will do. Why should I form a left-wing government? The time that I had to incorporate members of the left was when Bennett himself, in a previous election, would not join my government because he said, “Take away some of your right-wing partners and bring members of left of center government into the coalition.” So it was under parliamentary duress.
I wouldn’t do that. Why would I? I mean, with all due respect, these people believe in a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. They believe in a Palestinian state, which would become an armed Palestinian state. And I’ve always said, “That’s not going to happen.” These things are against my views. Why should I sacrifice my views? What? To get a favorable op-ed for two minutes in The New York Times? Come on. I’m not there. I’m serious.
‘Peace through strength is not a slogan. It’s a reality.’
Q: You just published your memoirs. If there’s one takeaway for readers, what would that one takeaway be?
A: Well, many, but I would say number one, peace through strength is not a slogan. It’s a reality. We cannot ensure the peace of our societies and the survival of our societies without nurturing the strength and spirit and body. That’s the first thing, and that’s what I’ve devoted my life to.
And the second is the whole story of the Jewish state, the Jewish people as I’ve experienced it and had an opportunity to contribute to it, which I think is also a contribution to human freedom, because I think the story of Israel is a parable. It’s a parable that says that a free people, if they muster their resolve and their courage, can overcome the most threatening odds of history. So it gives hope for everyone. If we can cross this raging river between annihilation and salvation as no other people has, then there’s hope for everyone.