Benjamin Netanyahu is preparing to become the Prime Minister of Israel for the third time. He has until December 21 to form a government before taking office.
In a wide-ranging interview with a group of print and television journalists at Al Arabiya, Mr. Netanyahu discussed Israel’s relations with Arab states, the US alliance structure in the Middle East, unrest in Iran, Israel’s new hard-right government, the future of the US-brokered maritime border agreement with Lebanon, and the Russia-Ukraine war.
Mr. Netanyahu reiterated the paramount importance of normalization with Saudi Arabia, which would be a “quantum leap” toward ending the Arab-Israeli conflict that “would change our region in ways that are unimaginable.” Saudi officials have consistently maintained that no normalization can happen without a Palestinian state.
Mr. Netanyahu indicated a willingness to explore a wide variety of peace options behind closed doors, stating “I believe in open covenants, secretly arrived at or discretely arrived at.”
Responding to questions about how the racist tenor of remarks by some of his coalition partners might affect relations with Arab states, Mr. Netanyahu stated that “The other parties are joining me, I’m not joining them.”
Mr. Netanyahu said that he would not repudiate the US-brokered maritime agreement with Lebanon, but denied that it was a peace agreement, adding that he saw “an enormous difference between the solid agreements between like-minded states and the so-called agreements with Iran and its proxies that are usually violated even before they're signed.”
The transcript of the interview as it appears below has been lightly edited for clarity, including the removal of repeated phrases and clauses, without altering the meaning of anyone’s remarks.
Mohammed Khalid Alyahya
AA: Your father was a noted historian who taught at Cornell. What did you learn from him? How has your understanding of history, and growing up in the United States, shaped your understanding of Israel and of the region?
BN: Well, I think my time in the United States obviously made me appreciate the important role of the United States in protecting the peace and stability of the world. And I view that alliance with the United States as particularly important. I can also say that I think one of my main goals would be to speak with my friend of 40 years, President Biden. And I’m going to tell him that I think that there is a need for a reaffirmation of America’s commitment to its traditional allies in the Middle East. Israel, of course, is there and we’ve had a solid, unbreakable relationship. But I think that the alliance, the traditional alliance with Saudi Arabia and other countries, has to be reaffirmed. There should not be periodic swings, or even wild swings in this relationship, because I think that the alliance between America’s allies and with America is the anchor of stability in our region. I think it requires periodic reaffirmation and I’m to speak to President Biden about it.
AA: About the cabinet formation that stirred a lot of controversy. In light of the commitments you have made to your allies on the extreme right, including handing them broad powers in the West Bank, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz says that he expects a collapse of the security situation in the West Bank that would extend to the Gaza Strip. What's your take on that?
BN: Well, first of all, I disagree with the premise of your questions. I didn’t hand over great powers in Judea-Samaria, the West Bank, not at all. In fact, all the decisions will be made by me and the defense minister, and that’s actually in the coalition agreement. So there’s a lot of misinformation about that.
I think my record speaks for itself; the last decade in which I led Israel was the safest decade in Israel’s history. But not only safe and secure for Israelis, also safe and secure for the Palestinians. Because there’s been the least loss of life on both sides and that’s not accidental. It’s because of a policy of security that I’ve led, which has actually resulted in more peace and economic possibilities. And by the way, in the year that I left government and the outgoing government was in power, things changed immediately. We had an eruption of violence like we had not seen since 2008, a year before I returned to office.
My policy is one of stability, peace, prosperity and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike. I think that [this] record not only speaks for itself, it also speaks for the future. I will govern and I will lead, and I will navigate this government. The other parties are joining me, I’m not joining them.
Remember Likud is one-half of this coalition. The other parties are, some of them are 1/4, 1/5 the size of the Likud. They’re joining us; they will follow my policy.
AA: Your partnership with the far-right parties has stirred concerns at home and abroad. How do you expect our countries to deal with a government whose leading members portray Arabs as enemies, sometimes in terms that are overtly racist?
BN: Well, first of all, a lot of them have also changed and moderated their views, principally because with the assumption of power comes responsibility. And as you approach power, you become more responsible.
But again, here’s my record: I have led successive governments, some of them with parties to my right. And during those years, I actually invested in the Arab communities in Israel more than any of the previous governments combined. Investments where investments should go -- in education and infrastructure, in transportation, and the quality of life, in governance.
Because a lot of them are complaining about the eruption of crime that makes their life hell. So I’ve invested in that too. I opened 11 police stations in Arab communities in Israel in the decade between 2010 and 2020 at the request of the community. [Do] you know, how many we had before? One. So I increased it by tenfold, both for security, for the ability for youngsters.
I want every young Arab boy or Arab girl in Israel to have the same opportunities to partake in the remarkable success story that is Israel. And therefore I’ve encouraged that, and will continue to encourage that.
AA: But what about the settlement, the new settlement about to [be established] in the West Bank that will further undermine the two-state solution. Mahmoud Abbas told al-Arabiya two days ago that this could lead to armed resistance, and he can't stop it anymore.
BN: Well, I think he [Mahmoud Abbas] keeps on saying that. But in fact, the reason we’ve not had an Israeli-Palestinian peace is because the Palestinians have refused to do, and I think tragically their leadership for the last century has refused to do, what is finally happening in the rest of the Arab world. And that is to recognize that the State of Israel is here to stay.
I think coming to a solution with the Palestinians will require out-of-the-box thinking, will require new thinking. The reason we got the historic Abraham accords is that we got out of this mode that Mahmoud Abbas wants to stay in, and that is to, you know, to mount the same lines, to go through the same rabbit holes, not to seek new ways. In fact, it’s when we started thinking about things in a new way that we broke the cycle of paralysis that paralyzed [attempts at] peace for a quarter of a century.
Now, I think paradoxically – I don’t think it’s paradoxical, but other people do – that as we expand the number of countries that make peace with us, it actually helps bring about at the end a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Everybody said “No, first you have to solve the Palestinian problem, otherwise, you won’t get peace with the Arab world.” I said it may be the other way around. It may be that as you expand the peace with the Arab states, you’ll be able to actually get to the peace with the Palestinians and I firmly believe that.
But I will say this, I think we face a possibility of not merely an expansion of the peace; I think we can have a new peace initiative that will form a quantum leap for the achievement for the resolution of both the Arab-Israeli conflict and ultimately, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And of course, I’m referring to what could be a truly remarkable historic peace with Saudi Arabia.
Mind you, I’m committed to deepening and strengthening the remarkable Abraham Accords that we’ve had with our neighbors, but I think the peace with Saudi Arabia will serve two purposes. It will be a quantum leap for an overall peace between Israel and the Arab world. It will change our region in ways that are unimaginable. And I think it will facilitate, ultimately, a Palestinian-Israeli peace. I believe in that. I intend to pursue it.
Of course, it’s up to the to the leadership of Saudi Arabia if they want to partake in this effort. I certainly hope they would.
AA: Speaking in Abu Dhabi, the Saudi foreign minister recently reaffirmed Saudi Arabia’s commitment to seeing a Palestinian state as a precondition to normalization. And Saudi officials have been saying time and again, they have predicted a fruitful and collectively beneficial relationship with Israel that would come after a two-state solution, after the Palestinian achievement of statehood.
What do you anticipate for Israeli-Saudi relations, given those constraints? Is normalization on the horizon? Would you meaningfully compromise on the Palestinian issue? Is there a plan after you become prime minister?
BN: There have been many ideas. I think the last initiative of President Trump actually put forth very innovative ideas that could help achieve or end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. I think we can end the Arab-Israeli conflict and achieve peace with the Palestinians. We just have to be creative about it. And we have to not dig in our heels because if you dig in your heels, you get stuck in the old groove.
I think part of the remarkable thing that has happened in the last few years, with the Abraham Accords, showed that if we get out of this groove, then amazing things can happen. And I think that amazing things can happen not only for Israelis and Arabs, but for Israelis and Palestinian-Arabs as well. I look forward to having the opportunity to discuss this with the Arab leaders and with the Palestinians themselves.
AA: Are you willing to accept the Arab Peace Initiative as a blueprint for negotiations? What concrete steps are you willing to take, or are you willing to take any concrete steps, in resolving the Palestinian issue in order to create this larger peace in the Arab world that you mentioned?
BN: Well, first of all, I have taken concrete steps under my administration, contrary to the public image. For example, it was under my government, not the previous left-led government, that we reduced dramatically the number of security checkpoints, we increased the number of passages that enabled 150,000 Palestinians from the territories to come and work every day. And you know I never shut that down even during periods of tension and terror. I said “no, they have to be able to earn a living, be able to care for their families, be able to move around.” I’ve encouraged investments, joint ventures, in high-tech between Israeli entrepreneurs and Palestinian entrepreneurs, the building of a Palestinian city, Rawabi, and other things. These are practical things that I say.
But I’m not here to tell you that an economic peace is a substitute for political peace. I believe that the reason we’ve not had a political peace, we couldn’t move forward, is because the Palestinian leadership still refuses to accept the right of the State of Israel to exist. That remains the problem. If you keep looking at other places, you’re not going to find a solution. I hope that [this] will change.
I think that the growing circle of peace between Israel and Arab states and the quantum leaps that we can have in a peace with Saudi Arabia will also convince the Palestinians, the Palestinian leadership, because I think quite a few of the Palestinian people already are there to adopt a different attitude towards accepting the State of Israel. And once that happens, then many things can happen. I think we should move forward creatively. We should have talks about it.
Look, the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 was an indication that there is a willingness, in those days, to think about how to get out of the straitjacket and to get to a comprehensive peace. I think things have changed, things have moved. But the need to have this kind of new thinking is important. And again, if we stick to the old grooves, we’ll be stuck in the old groove. If we think about new ways, then I think the sky’s the limit. And I mean that; it’s limitless actually.
AA: Do you consider the Arab Peace Initiative as a blueprint for negotiations, just as a starting point?
BN: I think it’s an indication of a desire to end the conflict in all its terms. But I think 20 years later, you know, we need to have a fresh view. And I’m not going say what it is. I think we need to talk about it. Maybe talk discreetly.
You know, I’m sort of a champion of a slight twist in what Woodrow Wilson said in the Versailles Peace Conference. He said he believed in open covenants, openly arrived at. I believe in open covenants, secretly arrived at or discreetly arrived at. There we will have to have discussions about all the questions that you asked today and see how we can advance this. If you try to sort it out in advance you get stuck. That’s what happens.
In Israel, we say “climb the tree.” Everybody climbs on their own tree and says, “I’m here, and I’m not climbing down and no matter how many ladders you give me.” I’m stuck in my tree, the other guy is stuck in his tree, and we just shout at each other across tree trunks and we never get to a meeting of the minds or an actual meeting on the ground. I think we have to take a different position. All these things need to be discussed discreetly, responsibly and, within the confines of closed meetings, openly. And once we get an agreement, then we can come out.
I don’t need the public fanfare, I don’t need it. You know, if you come to an agreement, it will be publicized. If you don’t come to an agreement, nothing happens. I think we can come to amazing agreements.
AA: Israel recently signed a US-Iranian-backed maritime deal with Lebanon, which you said was illegal. What exactly is wrong with the agreement? Why do you oppose it? And as prime minister will you repudiate that agreement, or do you intend to challenge it in court? There have been many statements saying that it's unconstitutional.
BN: Yeah. I think it contravened a longstanding tradition of bringing agreements that change Israel's territorial claims or territorial possessions or even economic claims. You bring it to the Knesset. I brought the Abraham Accords to the Knesset. By the way, I didn't have to, but I thought it was right on such an important matter to have our parliament decide on it. And I think they should have done it here too. I said that I'll look into it, [and] that I'll find ways, if there are bad things in it or incorrect things in it, or harmful things in it, to correct it in a responsible way.
I don't necessarily go tearing documents up, and I don't think that's going to be the case. I'll do what I can to protect Israeli economic and security interests within the policy that I talk about. And I think I've shown that I know how to do that responsibly, without adventurism and without wild statements. I'm too experienced for that.
AA: Does Israel intend to sign any more US-sponsored agreements with Iran-backed neighbors and Iran-backed agreements in Syria, for example? And do such rumors reflect the wishes of the current US administration, which pushed Israel extremely hard to sign the Lebanon Maritime Agreement?
BN: Well, it's been signed. I mean, it hasn't been approved, but it's been signed. You mean other agreements? I don't know. I'll look into it.
Look, my concern is that the revenues that come out of the sea that I think heavily favored Lebanon, do not favor Lebanon. They favor Hezbollah. And Hezbollah has not been a force for peace. So you may just be funding Hezbollah's military arsenal that could be used not only against Israel, but against many others in the Middle East. You have to think about that very carefully. But that is already done. As I said, I'll see what I can do to moderate any damage or to secure Israel's economic and security interests.
But as far as new agreements, well, this time we'll be negotiating it. And, you know, I'm a fair but tough negotiator, and we'll see what is brought before us. I don't rule out things, but I always negotiate based on what I believe is Israel's interest. I don't only look at Israel's interest because any negotiation always involves the other side. But the first thing that I look at: Is Israel's security going to be hurt? Are Israel's national interests going to be impeded? And within these parameters, we can proceed. We'll see. I don't want to commit before I know what they're suggesting.
AA: Mr. Prime Minister, are you willing to extend that or look at an agreement on the land border between Israel and Lebanon?
BN: Continual negotiations are there, and there have been border adjustments, by the way, on both sides, over the years. They have been tactical, and I don't think there is a major claim for a major shift, not a serious one.
The instability under the Lebanese-Israeli border was not based on this or that claim that the border has to move a kilometer here or a kilometer there. The instability was that this border was taken over on the Lebanese side by Hezbollah that calls for the eradication of Israel, [and that has] flooded south Lebanon with tens of thousands of rockets, 10,000 of which were fired into Israel. That's what's causing the instability.
And Hezbollah doesn't say, well, we're doing all this because we think we should have 500 more meters on and this or that part of the border. They say: 'We're doing all this because Israel shouldn't exist.' That's the problem.
I don't know what is being told in the Arab world, but that's the reality. Hezbollah is a force against peace, a force against stability, a force against the existence of my country and in my opinion, a force backed by Iran against the security and stability of many countries. And that's what we've had to deal with on the Lebanese border.
I wish we had a real border dispute between us and Lebanon. If there are any such disputes, they're trivial and minor compared to the real problem, which I've just discussed.
AA: If we take a step back geopolitically, do you see these US-backed agreements with countries that are backed by Iran, like Lebanon and Syria, or other countries where Iranian militias proliferate, as part of the framework of “regional balance” or regional “integration,” to use the language of the US administration.
In other words, is there a different purpose between US-sponsored agreements with countries that are backed by Iran on one hand, and the agreements between Israel and Gulf states also known as the Abraham Accords, are they all just part of making peace? Or are there in fact two different kinds of agreements that support two very different potential regional security architectures: one centered around the US relationship with Iran, and the second centered around Israel's relationships in the Gulf?
BN: I think the agreements that we make with like-minded states, traditional allies of the United States, and now, I think sharing common interests to block Iranian aggression, are powerful agreements and they actually have substance to them and they have weight. You can see immediately the flourishing in economic relations. Right now, after the Abraham Accords, we have billions of dollars, billions of dollars shaping up every year in joint ventures. We have people-to-people meetings, hundreds of thousands of Israelis visiting the Gulf states, Gulf states’ citizens visiting Israel. It's amazing. These are solid.
Why is that? Because there is a meeting of the minds. We both recognize each other's existence, each other's right to exist. The benefits that accrue to our population from cooperation and the desire to have our peoples move into the future with progress, with prosperity, and with security. It really is miraculous. That's what we can do with countries that share our vision of a truly new Middle East.
The problem with Iran and its proxies is that they have a completely different vision. They want to stop this progress. They want to dominate the Middle East, if not conquer it outright. They openly say they want to annihilate Israel. So, you know, obviously you may have a tactical agreement on the agenda on the Lebanese maritime question, but you can't really make it.
What kind of an agreement would I make with Iran? The method of our decapitation? How we commit suicide? How we allow them to have a nuclear arsenal that will threaten all of us? That's not an agreement.
So yes, I think there is a quantum, an enormous difference between the solid agreements between like-minded states and the so-called agreements with Iran and its proxies that are usually violated even before they're signed.
AA: Yeah, but surely the maritime agreement between Lebanon and Israel, essentially between Hezbollah and Israel, is an Iranian endorsed agreement? Now, whether it's in Israel's interest is besides the point of whether it is an Iranian-backed agreement.
BN: Look, there are ceasefire agreements between rivals and enemies, and they hold as long as the common interest to hold them keeps on. But that's different from peace.
I draw a distinction between tactical agreements or ceasefire agreements, or agreements that temporarily, or in a limited fashion, serve otherwise warring parties and the establishment of a broad peace agreement. That's so different.
Can we have a peace agreement with Iran? No, because Iran says there shouldn't be an Israel. They also say maybe not as forcefully, publicly, but they also say you shouldn't have many of the other countries in the Middle East, they should be subjugated as Iran's, basically as Iran's minions. They use their proxies in Syria, they use their proxies in Yemen, they use their proxies in Lebanon to affect such a policy, not merely against Israel, but against other Arab countries.
So, you know, who cares what they say? Look at what they do. Who cares what they sign? It doesn't mean anything. They sign and they violate, they cheat as fast as they sign. And you certainly shouldn't make agreements with them that are bad if they keep the agreement, which is what I think the JCPOA was. It was a horrible agreement because it allowed Iran basically with international approval, to develop a nuclear and basically an atomic arsenal paved with gold, with hundreds of billions of dollars of sanction relief. Where does the sanction relief go? Does it go to building hospitals in Tehran and Iran's cities? Does it go to solving the water problem there? It goes for the expansion of terrorism and aggression throughout the Middle East. So I'm very clear-eyed about that.
By the way, I think I have to tell you, I think that beyond public statements, I think the leaders of most of the Arab countries, and certainly the leading Arab countries are absolutely clear-eyed about this threat of Iranian aggression. And I, for one, do not fall into the trap of saying that if I sign an agreement with the ayatollahs, they're going to keep it. They're going to violate it if they can. They'll keep it only if it allows them to advance towards a capability of much greater aggression in a very short time.
AA: Speaking of the JCPOA, Washington is clearly still keen to strike a deal with Iran despite Iran's clear weakness and despite Israeli warnings of Iran's determination to pursue its nuclear ambitions independent of any international restriction. You have always been a vocal critic of the JCPOA, obviously. What is your plan...?
BN: Well, you're quite right. You're quite right. I have been a vocal critic of it. First of all, look at what is happening in Iran itself. The Iranian people are asking themselves are they better off today than they were 40 years ago when the revolution took place? You know, just look at their GDP per capita. It's basically, you know, a few thousand dollars. It hasn't moved. In Saudi Arabia, it more than doubled. In Israel, [it] more than doubled. Okay. Because we invest in our people. We invest in our citizens. But the ayatollah's regime is just investing in radicalism and terrorism and aggression.
So, number one, the Iranian people are not well off, and the JCPOA would give hundreds of billions of dollars to this aggressive regime, which they will use, again, not for the Iranian people, but for their aggressive plans to take over the Middle East and beyond that. So I think that's one criticism that I've had.
The second [is] it doesn't stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear arsenal because under the JCPOA, if it's resumed today, within 3 to 4 years, Iran would have unlimited enrichment, uranium enrichment capacity under an international approval, under a P5+1 and the great powers that would approve it, thereby basically saying to Iran: 'All you have to do is postpone the manufacture of these bombs, these nuclear bombs for two years, and you can be a nuclear threshold state with our approval. That's crazy. That's folly.
But today, I sense a change – not only in Israel, obviously, and in our region, but I sense a change in Washington. And I think given what has happened in Iran, given the extraordinary courage of the Iranian men and these extraordinary Iranian women, I think there's been a change and a lot of people now across the board in many lands say: 'You really cannot go back to the JCPOA and we have to do everything in our power to stop Iran from having a nuclear arsenal.'
So the answer to your question in one sentence: I'm committed to do whatever I can do to prevent Iran from having a nuclear arsenal. I naturally won't itemize that here, but that's a firm commitment that I've made to myself and to the people of Israel.
AA: Even without the consent of Washington?
AA: Even without the consent of Washington to pursue more aggression towards Iran?
BN: Not aggression. I want to protect ourselves against Iran's aggression, and against a regime that openly calls for the annihilation of my country. That's obvious, but the answer to your question is yes. With or without an agreement.
AA: Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister. Would you mind if I just stick with the Iran situation right now? You just lightly touched on the protests that were happening there. Do you think the Iranian regime in the present moment is strong enough to withstand the current unrest, or do you believe that it's weak enough to fall? What comes after? And in that situation, how would Israel react?
BN: I don't think anyone has an answer to that question. It's a very important question. But I think that if you look at what is happening now, since 1979, nothing like this has happened. I mean, initially people thought well, it's you know, it's like the green revolution, but it's not. It's stronger. Initially, they said it was only limited to the universities. No, it's not. It's stronger. They said it's only limited to, you know, a few urban areas. No, it's stronger.
Something very significant is happening in Iran. And it reflects the weakness of the regime that unlike, for example, Israel or unlike Saudi Arabia or other countries or the Gulf, the other Gulf states, they have not done anything for their people.
I mean, why are the people protesting? They're protesting because they want basic life, you know. You know, Iran suffers from this unbelievable shortage of water. What have they done for it? Nothing. Well, you have to drink to live, to buy food at a reasonable price to live. You have to have basic income to live. You have to have basic infrastructure to live. And Iran has done nothing on that.
So I think that, you know, ultimately these pressures accumulate. And rather than adopt a policy of creative reform, which I think is happening, for example, in Saudi Arabia, they haven't done that, haven't moved an inch. They haven’t moved a nanometer. You know, they’re just stuck and they don't care for their people. They don't work for their people. They work for a radical ideology that is bad for Iranians, bad for Arabs, bad for Israelis, bad for Americans and everyone else in between. So I think that [this] realization [which] has now crystallized across so many sectors of Iranian society creates a new situation.
How far does it go? Does it bring about the collapse or fundamental change in the regime or the replacement of this regime? I think it's too early to say, but I think we have to recognize that something very important is happening.
AA: Mr. Prime Minister, in the beginning of this interview, you mentioned that you'd like to see reaffirmation from Washington to its allies in the Middle East, to its traditional allies in the Middle East. In your recent autobiography, you portrayed Barack Obama as an optimist. That's what you called him.
What strategic vision do you think Obama had for the Middle East? Also, what place does Israel and Saudi Arabia have in that vision, Obama's vision, which is still being followed by Obama’s staffers, who staff the Biden Administration as well? And how would you describe the results of that vision so far, whether it be in Israel and Lebanon and Syria and Yemen or elsewhere.
BN: Well, I think President Obama, whom I respected but disagreed with, believed that Iran was the key to stabilizing the Middle East. And he thought that if he would make a deal with the ayatollahs, it would pacify the entire Middle East. He believed that the JCPOA, which he signed, would change Iran's behavior in the Middle East. It would make Iran join the family of nations.
I think it disregarded the ideological thrust of this radical, radical regime, its plans, its raison d'etre, which is to dominate the Middle East and frankly, dominate good portions of the world with awesome power. I think he didn't see that.
So when the JCPOA was signed, I argued this in Congress in 2015, I said, “well, you know, It won't bring Iran into the family of nations. It will let Iran out of the tiger’s cage to devour one nation after the other.” And that's what happened.
Did they pursue peace in Yemen? Did they pursue peace in Iraq? Did they pursue peace in Lebanon or in Gaza where they have their proxies and so many other places? And the answer is, of course not. They did the exact opposite. So I think on this, we had a difference of view with President Obama. And I think everybody can judge who was right and who was wrong.
I think that on this, many Arab leaders, including Gulf leaders and certainly the leadership of Saudi Arabia, see very clearly what the true nature of Iran's policies are, the true nature of its regime. Now, you know, I can also tell you that from day one, Iran also cheated on the nuclear accord. But I think it goes well beyond that. I think it's a question of how do you see the Middle East?
I saw it was not the right policy for the United States to seek an accommodation with such an aggressive regime in Tehran. Instead, it should bolster the traditional allies of America, beginning with Israel and Saudi Arabia, against Iranian aggression, and to develop our own societies, our own countries in every way, in security and in technology and in civilian life and so on. That was my vision.
Now you ask, where is America's policy? Are they going to go back to the JCPOA and give Iran this free course paved with gold to a nuclear arsenal?
Well, a year and a half ago before the protests in Iran, I would say they were certainly trying to do that. But I think there is a re-thinking in Washington. I don't think I'm quite convinced. I haven't had obviously talks yet with the administration, but I will soon. From the initial contacts that we have, I think there's a rethinking of that. And I'm glad there is.
I'd like that rethinking to go back to the reaffirmation of the traditional alliances in the Middle East. I think that's good. I think it's good for our countries. Those are good for America and good for peace.
AA: Everybody's saying now that Iran is a threshold nuclear power. In other words, it is just a few months away from being a nuclear power. You have been talking about it for 20 years, but Israel never took action, direct military kinetic action against it. And now people are saying it's too late.
Do you agree with that? I mean, is it too late to be able to stop a threshold nuclear power from becoming a nuclear power?
BN: No, it's not. And also, we did take a lot of actions which I don't itemize in my recently published autobiography, except one: The raid that our people did on the Iran's Secret Atomic Archive. And we brought back a lot of valuable information out of this archive. But I can tell you this, I think, and our former chief of staff, who's now a political opponent of mine, said during the recent elections, he said that because of the actions that the Israeli government under me took, we set back the Iranian program 7 to 10 years.
Did we stop it? No. But can we stop it militarily and in other ways? The answer is, I believe yes. And we're certainly not going to let them just plunge ahead.
Now, if you ask how can you stop such a problem, I won't go into the operational or technical details. But I will say that unless you're able to have a credible military option against rogue states that are trying to arm themselves with nuclear weapons, you won't stop them.
We stopped Saddam Hussein from developing nuclear weapons with a credible military action. We stopped Syria from developing nuclear weapons with a credible military action. The United States stopped Gadhafi's Libya from developing nuclear weapons with a credible threat of military action.
North Korea had signed all the agreements, including the NPT Non-proliferation Treaty. There were signatories to it for 17 years. That didn't mean anything. There was no credible military threat. And therefore, they're now a nuclear power. And half of Asia is quaking with fear.
Iran has been stopped or delayed by actions that again, I won't detail. But if you're not committed to taking the necessary action against Iran, then they will have a nuclear arsenal with deadly consequences for all of us and horrible consequences for their own people.
I think the answer – I don't think, I know – the answer to your question is, we have the means and we have the will. And if necessary, we'll do whatever is necessary to stop Iran from having a nuclear arsenal
AA: Even without the United States?
BN: Absolutely the actions that we took so far, and I'm not saying which ones we did, we did without the US. We didn't do it with US approval because the US probably would disapprove. I mean, they were for many years going on with the assumption that they have to broker or reach a deal with Iran. And if we told them what it is, every operation, what we were about to take, you know, they would say “we oppose it,” in which case would be a direct conflict. Why do that? Just make you make your move. And secondly, it might leak. And if it leaks in The Washington Post, in The New York Times, then the Iranians would have forewarning, and our action would be nullified in advance.
So we've taken a lot of steps. We made a lot of operations that have rolled back Iran. But did we stop it? No. Are we committed to stopping it from achieving their goals? Yes. We'll do everything in my power to achieve that goal.
AA: Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister. We have a question on Ukraine right now. Regarding the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, President Zelenskyy recently said that there'll be no peace with Russia before Ukraine reclaims Crimea and Donbas. What side are you on in the Ukraine war, specifically as it pertains to Iran's involvement? Will your government show intelligence for example with the Ukrainian governments about Iranian drones or the weapons? And do you plan to supply the defensive weapons to Ukraine that President Zelenskyy has asked for?
BN: Well, the recent supply of Iranian killer drones to Russia that are being used in the war with Ukraine is disturbing for two reasons. One, the human costs involved and two, this partnership [which] is troubling. I can tell you that our relationship with Russia obviously involved Iran, but paradoxically in a different way, because Iran was trying to use Syria, our northern border, as a staging ground for another Hezbollah-like front to open against Israel.
And they wanted to bring in a proxy army of about 80,000 people commanded by Iranian generals, stock it with missiles and other deadly weapons to be used against Israel. My policy was to prevent that, and we prevented it by, frankly, by taking air action. Bombing these installations and these forces from the air. And, of course, we were able to prevent that.
But that requires continual effort. And that effort involves Israeli pilots flying in the skies of Lebanon - sorry, the skies of Syria - and they're in spitting distance from Russian pilots. Now, I remember when I was a young soldier almost half a century ago on the banks of the Suez Canal, we were shooting down Russian planes from the sky and with their anti-ground [and] anti-air batteries, they shot down our planes from the sky.
The last thing we want to do is have a military conflict between Russia and Israel. We don't want it. I'm sure the Russians didn't want it. So we actually, under my policy of actively preventing Iran from basing itself militarily in Syria, we reached an understanding with Russia that preserved Israel's freedom of action on this important front. I'd like to continue to have that, but I'm also aware of the fact that we are being asked to supply defensive weapons to Ukraine.
I was asked about that and I said, look, I'll look into this question as soon as I get into office. I'm still not there. I'm still involved in the least pleasant activity of politics, which is coalition forming. I don't wish it on anyone. I'm actually taking a break right now and talking to you while this is happening.
Once I form the government, God willing, I hope it'll happen in a few days. Then I'll sit down with our people, learn from our intelligence people what's happening, make a reasoned assessment, and then come back with an answer to your question.
AA: Mr. Prime Minister, there have been these strange rumors sporadically popping up in Washington and elsewhere that there's a possibility of normalization between Israel and Syria and President Assad, there was pressure that was coming from one direction to the other. My question is, is there any credence to these rumors? Are they at least a reflection of some conversations going on? And is that a change to Israel's policy vis a vis Syria?
BN: Not that I know of.
AA: Fair enough. In June, Tom Friedman of The New York Times said that President Joe Biden might be the last pro-Israel Democratic president because the base of the Democratic Party is moving against it. Would you agree with that? [Does] the high degree of aggressive partisanship in Washington these days mean that, in practice, regional states are dealing as much with the US political parties as they are with the American state itself?
BN: You know, I disagree with that, because I've heard these prognostications time and time again. First of all, about me when I took office -- I would be the warmonger. And of course, the opposite has happened, my ten years in the prime minister's office, more than any other prime minister in Israel have bought the safest decades for Arabs and Israelis alike.
Second, they said there’ll never be any more peace treaties, and that happened as well. Then they said that when I challenged President Obama in Congress and the JCPOA, it had caused an irreparable rupture of support among Democrats for Israel. Well, Gallup has a tracking poll, and they measured the support among Republicans and Democrats, the American people, as a whole.
Each year they ask the same question, you know, where does your sympathy lie? With Israel? And lo and behold, before the speech and after the speech, the differences, it went up by about 10 percent. It went up. Didn't go down among Democrats. Okay.
What you see over time is this that support for Israel among Democrats is fairly high, but it's stable. You know, it's about 50 percent, something like that. Support among the Republicans has skyrocketed. It's very high. So there's a myopia because you think the Democrats are abandoning Israel. They're not. It's just that the Republicans have moved to a very strong Israeli position across the American political spectrum. Democrats, independents and Republicans. There is very strong and consistent support of the state of Israel.
This is not true of a part of the Democratic Party that has moved sharply to the left, you know, and it's moved in some cases to a radical position and often against the wishes of a broad, broad constituency in the public. And I think that adjusts itself because, you know, I think people want to seize the center and every political movement, no matter how polarized it is, ultimately, you know, you govern by seeking to get the bulk of the people behind you.
So I don't think that that basic attitude towards Israel is going to change. It's changing among the chattering classes. It's changing on the campuses. I don't deny that. But I think that in many ways it's a lot firmer and a lot more stable across the American public, both Democrats, independents and Republicans and independents alike. It's more stable. But this is not the first time that op-eds in The New York Times have been wrong.
AA: Prime Minister. Getting back to the Palestine question now, beyond the Abraham Accords and beyond political tactics, because Palestinian leaders have really recognized Israel every which way possible --
BN: I disagree.
AA: Yeah, well, beyond that, shall we say, you are still stuck with 7 million Palestinians between the river and the sea. Given the dramatic power imbalance in Israel’s favor, you are not a reluctant bride that will be brought to the wedding. You are going to have to be the initiator. I mean, a final settlement is going to have to be driven by Israel, really.
Do you see yourself as a General de Gaulle? You use the words “out of the box” and “creative,” which seems to be what is needed now. Do you see yourself as a potential historical leader like General de Gaulle, who could come out with that out of the box and creative approach? For example, do you see the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan with its respected monarchy and mature government infrastructure, as able to play a role in in a final settlement of this perennial issue?
BN: Well, first of all, our relations with Jordan are critically important. And I think the stability, prosperity and security of Jordan as it is, is an Israeli interest. We may have our disagreements periodically [and] that happens and even in the best of families. But I think the importance, the integrity of Jordan is important. And, for example, Hezbollah and Iran try to topple that regime periodically and bring in hostile forces.
As far as General de Gaulle, General de Gaulle had a relatively easy problem. You know why? Because Algeria was not five miles from Paris.
AA: I mean, in the metaphorical sense, as a historic leader.
BN: But this leads to my answer to you, I think [that] to have a solution, you have to be realistic about its nature. And I think people have not been realistic about its nature. And here's the principle that would guide me. I would say that the Palestinians should have in a final settlement all the powers to govern themselves, but none of the powers to threaten the survival and existence of the state of Israel.
And this requires a balance. It's not an either-or proposition. It's not zero-one. There is a balance in there. So far, we've not been able to get beyond first base because the Palestinians, as we all think, you know, I don't think they said publicly to you maybe, but I've seen it, you know, I've seen it public[ly] and I've seen it privately, they really have to shake off the fantasy that Israel will disappear, that somehow, you know, we'll make a tactical agreement with Israel, get the high ground over Tel Aviv, and eventually drive the Israelis out.
AA: Assume that they've given that up --
BN: That's a big assumption.
AA: Is there a road map you would envision, that would be enthusiastically adopted by you.
BN: Yes, there are a few. Well, take a look, for example, at the at the peace initiative of President Trump. It's not that I didn't have reservations. I did. It's not that I didn't expect the Palestinians to have reservations about it as well. But I think it offers interesting solutions to how do you have this coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians in such a tiny area between the river and the sea?
It actually has some interesting new ideas, like looking at transportational continuity instead of territorial continuity, things of that nature. You can look at it. I don't think people have actually read it. But are there possibilities for ending this conflict? I think there are.
But realistically, I think that the Palestinians will come around to genuinely making their peace with the existence of an Israeli state as we add other countries, and the most important country in the Arab world, we make a quantum leap that will, I think, solidify peace and sort of convince people, hey, it's over. Israel's here to stay. Now, let's make our peace with it.
AA: Mr. Prime Minister, we have another quick question [about] Lebanon: After the Israeli leaks that Iran is smuggling weapons through the Beirut airport to Hezbollah, to what extent is the airport now subject to Israeli strikes?
BN: I really couldn't say. I mean, you know, there was a rule in Israel that follows the rule of the United States over there. They say one president at a time. And in Israel, it's one prime minister at a time. So I'll be briefed on this question. But in general, I'd say that without the scaffolding of Iranian support militarily, political, financial, the whole structure of Hezbollah collapses, [and] there is no Hezbollah rule in Lebanon. And that's who is ruling in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Let's be open about that. But without Iranian support, they'd collapse overnight. And the same is true of other Iran's other proxies. They need Iran's support.
How do we prevent the smuggling of weapons to Hezbollah or for that matter, to Hamas? Well, there are many ways to do it. There are many ways in which my governments did it. But I can't tell you what is happening in recent months. I'll be able to at least know that within a few weeks, I hope, once I form the government.
AA: Thank you very much, Mr. Prime Minister. Thank you for all the time you've given us. Have an excellent day.
BN: Thank you and good luck to you, and good luck to Saudi Arabia.