Benjamin Netanyahu became the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history this week, if we add his three years in office after the 1996 election to his past 10 and a half years as prime minister. And because 1996 and 2019 are a world apart, we asked him how he views the end of an era from above.

“[Austrian novelist] Stefan Zweig wrote about the end of an era, ‘The World of Yesterday,’ a world that collapsed,” said Netanyahu.

“With us, it’s a different story. What has already happened is that we’ve made Israel into a rising global power. We discovered that we can leverage the basic characteristics of this people into exceptional strength in economics, defense and security, and diplomacy. We’ve proved that it is possible to turn Israel from a small country in a corner of the Middle East into a central world power.”

Q: In the past, people said that Israel was a state that was destabilizing the Middle East.

A: They also used to say that all the problems in the Middle East were the result of the Palestinian problem.

Q: And what is the situation today?

A: There isn’t anyone who makes that claim seriously anymore. Even our sworn enemies are ashamed to say it because it’s obvious that the lack of stability here is the result of the struggle between the Dark Ages and modernism, between the tyranny of radical Islam and the forces of freedom. That’s the most important battle. That is what is destabilizing everything. Standing up to the fundamentalist Islam that wants to take over first the Middle East and then the entire world.

If there’s one element that is stabilizing the Middle East and fighting radical Islam here, it’s Israel. The [Israel Defense Forces are] the only army in the world that is fighting the Iranian military, and that says it all. The ones who say that more than anyone else are the Arab nations. Their appreciation of us is going sky-high. Their ties with us are growing closer. Even Europe understands that.

On the United States and building widespread support

Netanyahu arrives for his interview hoarse, maybe because we meet him at the end of a workday in which he was surrounded by young staffers. The complicated electoral math of the upcoming election fades away for a moment as the prime minister looks back at how far he has come.

It is David Ben-Gurion more than Winston Churchill that now takes center stage for him, and he refers to his service in the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit more than he used to. In addition to the rest of the subjects we raised, he also took care to remind us that he wants to “train the future generation of leadership”—a look ahead to the days that will follow him.

Q: In the past, including in the time of Ben-Gurion, foreign leaders would scold the Israeli premier.

A: I’m not scolded too much. As the person who serves as the leader of the state of a people who broke the rules of history, rose from the ashes and built itself a state with a strong army, I’ve never felt that I arrive at meetings in an inferior position. I come with sober, realistic positions, with deep confidence in what I represent. Therefore, one needs to speak with all due respect, and I’m not afraid of confrontation when Israel’s interests demand it.

Q: The confrontation you had with former U.S. President Barack Obama, on camera. Was that something you planned?

A: I don’t call that a confrontation, I call it the truth. I told the truth about our people. The truth about the Middle East. About the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I said that the root of the conflict lies in their [the Palestinians’] refusal to recognize the Jewish state. Afterward, I heard it described as defiance. I didn’t see it that way.

It’s true that it came in response to President Obama’s remark that Israel should return to the 1967 borders. I respected Obama, but I wasn’t afraid to express my position, and he wasn’t afraid to express him. What wasn’t taken for granted was that I, as the prime minister of Israel, wasn’t bowing down.

Even as much as we disagreed about Iran, it didn’t prevent us from arriving at a very important agreement that contributed a lot to our defense—$38 billion in aid over a 10-year period. I value that highly.

Q: At the time, it was said that we were “losing” America.

A: America is our most important ally, but not our only one. Its importance can’t be overstated, but I believe that we also need to create alliances with other countries, not because they will take the place of the United States, but because we increase our strength by forging ties with more nations.

I’ve invested almost 40 years in fostering the most important element of our ties with America, which is public opinion in the United States. While [Israel’s] ties with other countries are mostly based on mutual interests, our alliance with the United States is mainly based on shared values. Values that identify us.

At the end of the day, in a democracy like the United States, policy on Israel stems not only from the person sitting in the White House but also the following factors: public opinion and how it is reflected in Congress, as well as in the White House.

In general, Israelis tend to think that it’s just a question of who is in the White House. I held the opinion that it is vital to build a broad network of support for any event, in any situation. It doesn’t matter who the president is.

Q: Some claim that U.S. support for Israel today comes from one party.

A: It didn’t use to be a single party. When I was studying in the United States after I finished the army, most of the support for Israel came from the Democratic Party. I didn’t find too many fervent supporters of Israel among the Republicans. That changed because America changed. The center of balance of the support changed.

I’m not ignoring the voices that oppose us, either. We can’t change people and we can’t control the internal processes that are taking place in other countries. To a limited extent, we can influence them. We need to maximize our hold on the pillars of support and do as much as possible to check the points of opposition.

Q: How would you define our current relations with Russia? Have they prevented a war in the north?

A: The answer is yes. At least that’s what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin said, and I’m quoting him. When I was asked to run [for prime minister] again in 2000, I met Putin for the first time, at a Chabad House in Moscow. He asked my wife for permission to steal me away for a few minutes. Three hours later, no one was left in the synagogue and we left.

Since then, we’ve met several times. When he sent his forces into Syria, I immediately flew over and talked to him. There were two possibilities. I remember from the time I was a young soldier on the banks of the Suez Canal how the IDF fought the Russians. We downed their aircraft; they used surface-to-air fire to bring down our planes.

It was obvious that we didn’t want to fight each other. I told him, with the directness that characterized our relations—there is mutual respect between us and we speak directly and to the point—that I would have to take action in Syria, that I wasn’t willing to allow Iran to bring its army to our borders. They [Iran] announce their intention of annihilating us.  “What would you do?” I asked him.

I told him that I was sure he would do the same as me, and so we would continue our actions. That raised the question of how we would operate in such a crowded area if there was no coordination between us [Israel and Russia]. From [that] moment, we started to coordinate.

Since then, we’ve had 12 meetings. We took care to draw a red line between the IDF and the Russian army, and from time to time I would bring the IDF chief of staff or the head of the National Security Council or the head of the air force to Moscow for these meetings, so we could dot the I’s and cross the T’s of the coordination. That prevented a war and preserved the freedom of action that is vital to us.

It was achieved through direct contact between leaders, and persuasive abilities. Secondly, there was the determined nature of the action. Thirdly, we created additional mutual interests with Russia.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 4, 2019. Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO.

Q: But with them, it’s just a matter of interests. Where are the shared values?

A: First of all, there are a million Russian speakers here [in Israel]. They are a cultural and human bridge.

Q: Are they important to Putin?

A: I think it creates an immediate bond. The bridge creates ties. Secondly, he admires the fact that I appreciate Russia’s role and contribution and suffering in defeating the Nazis. That’s something he doesn’t always hear. But he hears it from me. Not because I want to appeal to him, but because I think we should take into account what the Red Army did to contain the Nazis.

And we always need to remember that there were about half a million Jewish soldiers who fought with the Red Army. Walking through Red Square, hearing “Hativka” played here—it thrills the spirit. It shows you where we used to be. They mark Russia’s victory over the Nazis, but Russia wouldn’t have been wiped out even if it had been occupied.

We know that we [the Jews] were nearly wiped out. We were the fragments of a people—dust and ashes. And now, 73 years after the victory, a prime minister of Israel is standing up and forming close ties [with Russia] and is one of only two foreign leaders who were invited to the [2018 Moscow Victory Day] march.

Q: Do we have mutual interests?

A: In the tripartite meeting with the United States that took place here, we reached an agreement on a target for getting Iran out of Syria. That target tells you a lot.

Q: A Russian immigrant [Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman] is accusing you of wanting to found a state run by Jewish law.

A: That’s a bad joke. I won’t allow a state run by Jewish law to be established here, and I’ve stated that.

When the state was founded, there was a question about how we would handle the issue of religion and state. We are the only people through which the threads of both nationality and religion run. There are countries that have a lot of religions and there are religions that include a lot of different peoples. We are a unique people because we lost our land and established our national roots in our religion until we could re-establish our own state.

[Did anyone ever say] ‘Next year in the Vatican’?

Ben-Gurion faced the dilemma of religion and state. On one side, there is a religious minority that wants a state governed by Jewish law, and on the other, there is the secular majority who opposes that. How do we solve it? We’re trying to solve it through ad hoc compromises. In one community there’s no public transportation on Shabbat, and in other places, there is, or the [local] cinema is open. It depends on the community.

Q: You talk about Ben-Gurion, who spoke about balances and the status quo. But I’ve found remarks of his in which he called the Bible “our mandate.” Today, those remarks would be condemned as “religification.”

A: No, the Bible isn’t the sole province of the religious public. It belongs to the Jewish people. It’s not by chance that we’re here. In those 2,000 years [of exile] there was a great coming into being during which the Bible was written. It’s our people’s book, the one that establishes our identity. There are universal things in the Bible that belong to all of humanity. There is no place where it is expressed more strongly. The Bible is the foundation of our existence. That is what my father [the historian Benzion Netanyahu] taught me.

He was a nationalist whose worldview was anchored in the Bible. I married the daughter of a winner of the International Bible Quiz. And I re-launched Bible study at the Prime Minister’s Residence. I want to increase Torah study. I was asked what our core studies were—math and English and science. The same is true in Korea. I’m a Jew who respects Jewish tradition. When I meet haredi MKs and we talk about the weekly Torah portion, I always tell them, “Why don’t you study the Bible?” Did you know that they don’t study the Bible?

Q: Your rival party [Blue and White] is a military party.

A: Military? It sounds like you haven’t been in the army for a long time.

Q: A party of generals. It seems as if you had a long-term conflict with the security and defense establishment about Iran. What happened there? Former GOC Northern Command Yair Golan accuses you of blowing the Iranian threat out of proportion.

A: It’s vital to identify a danger in time. If there’s one thing that characterizes our people, it’s that we haven’t spotted threats in time. My father wrote a book about a leader of the Jews of Spain who was a genius, as well as the finance minister—Don Isaac Abravanel. And in 1492, shortly before the Jews were expelled from Spain, he writes that the situation of Spanish Jewry had never been better.

A short time later, one of our greatest disasters befell us, and I can give you more examples. The Jews’ lack of ability to foresee the danger of the Holocaust. The arguments about Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whom they called an alarmist, and said the danger in Europe was not an existential threat. It is vital to identify a threat. I saw Iran as a terrible threat and wrote about it back in 1979.

I saw the threat of radical Islam. It was clear to me that Islamism would replace Nasser’s pan-Arabism. They [the Iranians] were simply busy fighting a war with their neighbor, Iraq. The moment they were free, they continued the revolution that was designed to spread a murderous, zealous ideology. And a regime like that arming itself with nuclear weapons is an existential threat.

The first time I was elected prime minister, I saw that the matter still hadn’t sunk in. We weren’t in complete agreement, to say the least. We were busy with the Palestinians. And no one gave a thought to the issue, even if there was understanding. Yitzhak Rabin did actually think about it. We discussed it a few times. But our systems weren’t calibrated for a confrontation. Not in terms of diplomacy, not in terms of intelligence, not in terms of the military. There was a need to turn the ship around.

When I left the Prime Minister’s Office, I did everything I could to bring about sanctions against Iran. I told [then-Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert that I wanted to work in the United States at the diplomatic level for countries to apply sanctions to Iran. I wouldn’t have done that without his approval.

As prime minister, I’ve once again done everything in my power to bring about American sanctions against Iran, as well as prepare our forces to preempt the threat. I think that the international community, which thought we would take military action, decided that the way of preventing us from doing do was to issue these sanctions.

Q: Were we very close to military action?

A: We were very serious. It was no bluff. The Obama administration thought so. In any case, as a result of a number of different considerations—and that might have been the main one—the United States issued sanctions. Iran collapsed under the pressure. It started to feel the pressure. Then came the [2015] nuclear deal, which let up on the pressure. It gave them a pathway—an expressway—to nuclear capabilities within a few years. It wasn’t conditional on any change in their behavior.

The argument was that if Iran received millions as a result of the sanctions being lifted, it would become a moderate state. Today, we can judge. I argued the opposite. Happily, President [Donald] Trump withdrew from the deal and is applying new pressure to Iran. The answer is pressure, pressure and more pressure.

Q: Do you support an attempt to bring down the Iranian regime, or negotiations that will lead to a better deal?

A: I support pressure that will do one or the other. It doesn’t matter so much which. But it could lead to one or the other. I won’t weep if there is a regime change, but [pressure] could also lead to a change within the regime, a change of policy. Right now, their policy is to quietly pursue nuclear weapons while also conquering the Middle East with the money that the eased sanctions sent flooding into Iran’s coffers.

Q: A new book by Ilan Kfir says that in September 2012, you and [former Prime Minister Ehud] Barak diverged in your approaches to a nuclear Iran. What happened that Barak, who had supported your policies, jumped ship?

A: Ask him.

Q: Ben-Gurion said that Israel’s fate depended on two things: strength and justness. Which is harder to maintain these days?

A: You need to increase power, not maintain it. My outlook is built on bolstering our strengths. Without strength, we won’t survive. The weak don’t survive. A strong people forces alliances. So from the first moment, the main question about Israel’s existence was whether we would be able to develop the strengths to not only confront our enemies but also be accepted by the rest of the world. The simple fact is that what makes the world accept you is, first and foremost, your strength.

You think that the various Asian powers are accepted because they adhere to the practice of meditation? Or because of their moral principles and liberalism?

Obviously, we also want the support of public opinion and the free nations for our truth and the justice of our path. That’s what I’ve done in the United States. There is no Israeli who has worked more than me to sway American public opinion. I talk about justice there, about our rights. They say we’re a primitive state, an apartheid state. One that is cruel to women, to minorities. The lies about us are absurd, and I’m hungry to smash them.

At the same time, I tried to bolster and double Israel’s power. I gave instructions to build thousands of [missile] interceptors. There’s one bad thing about all these weapons—they cost a lot. Where will the money—tens of billions a year—come from? It will come from fostering our economic strength, by fostering a growing economy and by a relatively low tax rate to create a lot more revenue.

I’ve learned that you need to develop a relative advantage, and it’s only possible in a free economy. So I’ve devoted a major part of my public life to liberating the Israeli economy, which was concentrated and even demi-socialist, with a huge public sector that was burdening the private sector. The fat were riding the backs of the thin.

When I first became prime minister, an Israeli citizen couldn’t take more than $1,000 to $2,000 out of the country without a special permit from the Bank of Israel. Could the “startup nation” have functioned that way? I freed the currency. I also handled the deficits, and not by printing money, but by setting priorities. It demanded some very difficult things, like reducing child stipends. All these decisions led to growth.

There is a difference between thinking and doing. You need to shed political blood, and I paid the highest price in the short term. Economic strength determines military might. Seven years ago, I set a goal of Israel becoming one of the five leading world powers in the cyber sector. I can say that thanks to our cyber capabilities, we’ve prevented 50 major terrorist attacks. When the world sees the quality of the technology, everyone wants to benefit from it.

The “diplomatic tsunami” folks argue that the way into the world starts with dangerous, extensive territorial concessions, which will make us accepted in the Arab world. I argued that we needed to take the opposite approach—first reach out to the world, and from there approach the Arab world. Our ties with the Arabs are stronger than they’ve ever been. That might lead to a deal with the Palestinians we could live with.

I believe in strength. My rivals believe in concessions that will lead to weakness.

Q: Is there a chance that the Likud might bring [former Justice Minister] Ayelet Shaked on board?

A: I can tell you one thing—I have some experience in diplomacy, security and economics. And also with connecting all these things. And I’ve also acquired political experience. My political experience tells me I shouldn’t answer that question.

Q: In 1996, you said that you wouldn’t serve more than two terms.

A: I said that if there were direct elections [for prime minister], if there was a presidential system, which I support, I would support everything it entailed, including term limits. But no parliamentary system anywhere in the world limits the number of terms in office. I’m in favor of the presidential system.

Q: What drives you after so many years in power?

A: A sense of devotion to basing Israel’s strength in the time allotted to me. The public determines how much time I have, not me. Analysts say these things so often that we get sick of hearing them. My mission is, first of all, to check the threats, complete the liberation of the Israeli economy and reduce regulation.

We were one place above last on an OECD index [on economic freedom]. Now we’ve jumped 15 places. I want to reach the top five.  You have no idea how happy the citizens of Israel would be. The small-business owners whose lives we make miserable with regulations and legal entanglements—they have to be freed. And that will be reflected in prices and in economic growth.

What also motivates me is the need to stop another threat to us: missiles. We’re on the way to solving the problem, to continuing to normalize relations with the Arab world, and possibly by doing that solving the conflict with our Palestinian neighbors. The choice is between me, with experience and the results that I bring, and [Blue and White Party leader] Benny Gantz, who lacks experience.

I don’t think he can operate in the various fields I’ve described. He doesn’t share the views I’ve described. To be a leader of Israel, which we have made into a rising power on the international stage, you need to be able to play on the global pitch. You have to. If the prime minister of Israel doesn’t take direct action on U.S. public opinion, he can’t act as an equal, he can’t initiate economic and international processes that concern Israel, and Israel won’t continue on its current path. I want to keep strengthening Israel, and also very much want to train the leadership that will come later.

At the end of our conversation, Netanyahu tells us about his family’s connection to Avraham Arnon, one of the founders of Sayeret Matkal.

“We became very close when he was ill,” said Netanyahu. “He stayed at my parents’ house and told me, ‘I want you to stay in the army, for you to become commander of the Sayeret Matkal, and then continue your way up.’ I told him I had taken part in a lot of operations. I was wounded in the operation to free the Sabena [Flight 571] hostages. I lost friends. I had given five years, but I felt that ultimately, the future would be determined by statesmen. I’m not sure that a 100 Sayeret Matkal units can fix the damage caused by one failed statesman.

“So think about what would have happened if we’d put our heads down and accepted the nuclear deal. As Benny Gantz and [No. 4 on the Blue and White list] Gabi Ashkenazi said, there’s nothing we can do about it. Or [Blue and White No. 2 Yair] Lapid, who said it wasn’t so bad and we had to accept it. If I hadn’t appeared before Congress, American public opposition to the deal would have fallen apart. If it had, that meant that Iran would have continued on its path without hindrance, without pressure, without sanctions. Without oversight.

“I needed to take the opposite tack—often against these same people as well as against others who were in key positions. Ben-Gurion also had to take a stance against the army, numerous times. So I went against the military. Like I went against former chief of staff Ashkenazi when I forced him to build the border fence in the south. That fence saved Israel.”

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.