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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dedicates much of his time to thinking about how to handle the Iranian nuclear issue, considering it a rapidly approaching existential threat. Not surprisingly, it was also the main topic of a wide-ranging interview he gave with Israel Hayom before Rosh Hashanah. Here is what the Israeli leader had to say:
IH: What did you say, and what did you hear, in your recent conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama?
Benjamin Netanyahu: “It was a good conversation that revolved around significant issues and our desire to prevent Iran from progressing any further with their military nuclear program. It is natural to have disagreements. Israel is closer [to Iran] and more vulnerable. The U.S. is big, far away, and less vulnerable. Naturally we have diverging views on certain things. In the face of a threat like Iran’s nuclear armament, I believe that it is important that the international community set a clear red line. Iran has taken obvious steps in recent years and months toward developing nuclear weapons capability.”
Do you believe Obama when he says, “We will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons”?
“I’m certain that he means what he says, just as the Europeans mean it when they say it and the same way we mean it when we say it. But the question is how to achieve this in a practical fashion—that is what we discussed. This is the main issue affecting our future. Naturally, a prime minister should be looking out for Israel’s essential interests. I do so in conversations with world leaders and in public remarks.”
It appears as though you are currently in conflict with Obama. Is Israel in conflict with the U.S.?
“It is not a conflict. It is a question of emphasis on Israel’s interests, and that is the responsibility of the prime minister of Israel. I have been saying these things for 16 years.
“At first I was almost the only one warning against this danger, and then others joined me. I called for sanctions on Iran and I was nearly alone in that call, but then others joined me. I was the first one to demand red lines, and maybe I am alone at this time, but I believe that others will soon join me.
“A prime minister’s and a leader's duty is to insist on the things that are essential to Israel's security, even when it is not easy, and even when there is criticism, and even when there is no immediate agreement on everything.
“If, over the last 16 years, I had listened to the advice of all those people who told me that this or that is ‘unacceptable’ or that ‘now is not the right time’ or ‘wait until the circumstances shift in your favor,’ I don’t know if we would have made it this far. I was able to contribute to the establishment of a global coalition against Iran. We are encumbering Iran’s economy, but we have not yet reached the main objective: stopping Iran's nuclear program. And Iran is getting ever closer to achieving its own objective. That is why I am saying things in the most responsible, thought-out, measured way possible—to our American friends as well—that we have a common goal: stopping the Iranians.”
When you make remarks to the Americans in such a blunt way, doesn’t it cause damage?
“I’m not saying things in a blunt way, but in an honest way, just the facts. I can make nice and word things delicately, but our existence is at stake. This is our future. We’re talking about a historic junction that has profound meaning. These are not just words and I am not exaggerating. That is what I have done, and that is what I will continue to do.”
The U.S. is in the midst of an election year. There are allegations that you are intervening and impacting the elections.
“That is complete nonsense. The only thing guiding me is not the U.S. elections but the centrifuges in Iran. It is not my fault that the centrifuges aren’t more considerate of the Americans’ political timetable. If the Iranians were to hit the ‘pause’ button and stop enriching uranium and building a bomb until the end of the elections in the U.S.—then I could wait.
“But they are not waiting. They are progressing. The things that I am saying have to do with events in Iran, not events in the U.S. The desire to stop Iran is common to all Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike. There is no distinction in the desire to stop this thing. It is my duty as the prime minister of Israel, when I see Iran’s nuclear program barreling forward, to say the things that I think are necessary to ensure the future of the State of Israel. It has nothing to do with American politics.”
What needs to happen for Israel to shift from talk to action?
“I don’t think that there is any point in going into that.”
How long before Iran reaches the zone of immunity?
“Every day that goes by brings Iran closer to its goal.”
Is there a disagreement with the U.S. over that assessment?
“I don’t think that there are big gaps in our assessments of the point at which Iran will complete its preparations. The question is when action needs to be taken, not so much in terms of the date, but more in terms of the process: when Iran will reach a point beyond which it will be extremely difficult to stop. Obviously our answer to that question is different from that of the U.S. because there is a difference in our capabilities. But time is running out for the U.S. too.”
Is Israel facing Iran alone?
“I am doing everything in my power to turn everyone against Iran. We are safeguarding our ability to act on our own in the face of any threat to our security and our future. The entire world is besieging Iran, financially speaking, and we should encourage that.
“A large part of the world has enlisted to the cause and answered our call. There is an international framework to press Iran, but we still can't say that, despite all the real difficulties imposed on Iran’s economy, it is stopping Iranian aspirations. I see both sides of the equation, but I’m not satisfied with just one.”
Is Israel prepared for an attack on the homefront?
“We are living in the missile age, which we entered during the Gulf War. There has been a decades-long gap in preparedness. An entire generation has gone by without proper homefront preparations. I take this issue very seriously, and I hold meetings on homefront preparedness every other week. I am personally involved in the matter. In the same way that I was personally involved in building the fence in Sinai [along the Israeli-Egyptian border], which has stopped infiltrators, thus, here, we are also working methodically.
“We can’t protect every point in Israel, but we can protect most of it. One of the things that has made me very happy is the fact that the Iron Dome [missile interceptor system] has become operational. It was a decision I made during my term, and the results have been good.”
“But it is important to remember this: You can protect from missiles in one way or another, but there is one thing there is no protection from: the atom bomb. The only thing that can protect us is preventing it from becoming a reality in the hands of the enemy. And, of course, we have to clarify to anyone who ever considers attacking Israel with weapons of mass destruction that he does so at his own peril.”
It looks as though housing prices in Israel have begun climbing again, despite various government measures. Will there be additional measures to bring housing prices down?
“According to the data I have, housing prices have risen by 1.8 percent since the beginning of the year. That is far less than in previous years. Prices are too high, in my opinion, and we are working to increase the supply of apartments. The current supply stands at 80,000 units. That is why the sharp price hike has leveled out. But we want more. Opening up the main routes on the highways will help. What was once considered to be in the periphery will no longer be in the periphery. Using the freeway you can get [to central Israel] in a short time and you can afford a house with a yard. You have to leave Gush Dan [central Israel] and then you can see the revolution. Even inside Gush Dan you can see the revolution.”
You have been blamed for the collapsing communications market: for involvement, or inaction, in saving Channel 10 and the collapse of the Maariv newspaper.
“Funny that no such allegations were made when industrial plants were forced to close down. I don't think that we, as a government, can or should intervene in the communications market. If we do we will be accused of the opposite—people will say that we are controlling the media by providing assistance to this or that media outlet. There is a real problem in the market. It is simply too small to support the number of media outlets that exist. I hope that all the channels and newspapers find a way to survive, but the government can't do everything.”
When should we expect Israeli general elections?
“Sometime in 2013.”
Read the full interview with Prime Minister Netanyahu on the Israel Hayom website at http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=5813