Four days ahead of Tuesday’s election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life.
The Zionist Union’s lead is growing. The Likud’s satellite parties on the Right and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu are biting off chunks of its support.
Netanyahu’s fate appears to be in the hands of President Reuven Rivlin, with whom he has sparred for three decades. His refusal to endorse Rivlin’s run for president could come back to haunt him next week, when the president begins the process of assigning a candidate to form a new government.
Netanyahu says he believes Rivlin will make a “substantive” decision. But he is only human, and sources close to him said this week that he was devastated by the way Netanyahu tried desperately to prevent him from winning.
The appearance of Holocaust scholar Elie Wiesel at Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was a reminder that Netanyahu went as far as offering the presidency to Wiesel, who lives in the US.
Even when Netanyahu did endorse Rivlin and he came up to shake the prime minister’s hand and thank him, Netanyahu did not look him in the eye and acted as if Rivlin’s hand repulsed him.
In an interview at the Prime Minister’s Residence in the capital, The Jerusalem Post asked Netanyahu whether he regrets how he treated Rivlin, what will happen to the country if the Zionist Union wins the election, and whether a loss would spell the end of his political career.
The following are excerpts.
Your Likud party is down in the polls, even in the Likud’s internal polls. If you don’t end up winning this election, with the Iranian threat being so serious now, do you believe Israel could be destroyed?
I think our security is at great risk because there is a real danger that we could lose this election. If the gap between the Likud and Labor continues to grow, a week from now [Isaac] Herzog and [Tzipi] Livni will become the prime ministers of Israel in a rotation with the backing of the Arab parties. That will cause such a monumental shift in policy that it will endanger the security of Israel – and anyone who wants to stop it has to vote Likud to narrow the gap.
There is no privilege now to vote for other parties. If you vote for Bayit Yehudi, you bring down the Likud’s mandates. That will bring Tzipi and Buji [Herzog] into the Prime Minister’s Office. If you vote for [Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor] Liberman or Kahlon, you bring down the Likud’s mandates. Liberman and Kahlon have not committed to recommending me to form the next government. They could very well go with the Left.
The only way to prevent a government of the Left with Tzipi and Buji as prime ministers, backed by the Arabs, is to vote for the Likud.
If they are in power and deal with the Iranian threat, will Israel be in trouble?
Of course we would be in trouble. They have said on several occasions that maybe the deal isn’t so bad, we can live with the deal. They did everything possible to criticize rather than support me, as I faced enormous pressure and went to explain Israel’s opposition to the deal – which could give Iran an easy path to the bomb and pose an existential threat to Israel.
Not only have they not supported me, they have said we should bow our heads to the US. I have great respect for the presidency, for President [Barack] Obama. I have great respect for our alliance, even when there are disagreements. When the security needs of Israel require me to take a step that is contrary to what is put forward by the US president, that’s what I’m here for. That’s what a leader of Israel has to do.
Herzog and Livni can’t stand up to Obama?
They can’t stand up for a second! A millisecond. They have zero leadership. They believe the only thing they have to do is say yes to any demand that comes from the best of our allies, and no, we shouldn’t.
I believe we should do whatever we can to maintain our relations with the US, but we should also know to draw the line when things that could endanger us are on the table – like the nuclear deal with Iran, like the insistence that we return to pre-1967 lines and build another “Hamastan,” like the demand we divide Jerusalem. We have to stand up against these things; that’s what the prime minister of Israel is elected for.
People in the US respect a prime minister who stands up for the State of Israel, and you’re not going to get that from Tzipi and Buji. You will get prime ministers who completely prostrate themselves before any pressure. Not only can’t they stand up to pressure, they don’t want to stand up to the pressure. They just want to yield and give in, because they think that the way to secure our existence is by giving into Arab demands and being less demanding ourselves against the Iranian nuclear program.
On the Palestinian issue, it’s been reported that Obama intends to use his last 22 months in office to try to force through a plan that would compel Israel to make a lot of concessions. How will you be able to stand up to that pressure?
I’ve been prime minister for nine years, and I’ve shown my proven capacity to withstand pressure and stand up for the interests of Israel in a careful and responsible way. Sometimes that means stating a position outright and galvanizing support for it in the US and Israel.
Respect for Israel in the US is at a record high, despite the differences there have been with the administration. More than 70 percent in the US believe that this agreement won’t stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Yes, there will be pressures to withdraw to pre-’67 lines and divide Jerusalem; yes, there will be pressures to relinquish our opposition to the Iranian deal. If the gap between the Likud and Labor is not shrunk, then Buji and Tzipi will be here and with the support of the Arabs will capitulate on all fronts.
There have been reports that you yourself capitulated during the negotiations, that there are documents which were published. Is there any validity to any of this?
It is utterly false. These were American positions, not my positions. I made it clear that I refuse to divide Jerusalem and go back to pre-1967 lines, that I demand the Palestinians give up a right of return. Those were and are my positions.
The US presidential race is starting. You have good relations with the Republican leaders. How is your relationship with Hillary Clinton, the presumed front-runner (if she runs)?
The relationship is good, with everyone. I don’t see our relationship based on party lines. I made that clear in my speech in Congress; the reception I got proves that.
You’ve talked about a global campaign to try to bring you down. Who are these people uniting against you to try to take you out of office?
There is a massive effort, with tens of millions of dollars according to some estimates to mobilize the Arab vote – because they know they will support Herzog to form a blocking coalition. It’s a massive effort, and we only see a small part of that glacier.
There are individuals. Some governments are involved that are supporting various efforts. There is V15, an effort to mobilize left-of-center voters with huge investments. Foreign consultants are here in droves, and the money is flowing here. All of it is intended to make the Likud lose.
What’s wrong with fund-raising abroad? You raise money for your political campaigns exclusively from Jews in the Diaspora.
The procedures for primaries are well-regulated, everyone knows what they are, and the money is a pittance, compared to the millions flowing now. It is a clear effort to cleverly evade the election laws and buy the elections with these circumventions. There is no comparison with raising money for primaries, which I do abroad because I don’t want to be beholden to the Israeli tycoons and business leaders.
I want to receive modest support from people who do not have business here because I am in charge of the Israeli economy. I’ve done the reforms here that have made Israel grow. I’ve made it possible for the Israeli economy to rise in GDP per capita – to pass Cyprus and Greece, Italy, Spain and soon we’ll overtake France; to create hundreds of thousands of jobs; to create rail lines; to block the borders from infiltrations. These are some of the things.
We’ve done dozens of things that have changed the landscape of the Israeli economy and created a technological, free-market powerhouse. Can you name one reform that Tzipi and Buji have done? Kahlon can name one reform, but it was my reform according to his own testimony. He said he couldn’t have done the reform that lowered cellular prices without Netanyahu.
We still have plenty to do in the housing market, but we can only do it if the Likud forms the government. The statist government-controlled economy that Labor believes in will be the added blow to the people of Israel, along with their capitulations on the diplomatic-security front. That’s something the people of Israel don’t want.
But it’s looking like the president will say the Likud and the Zionist Union have to run the government together. How would you prevent it?
To get the right to form the government you need to have many more Likud votes. It is critical to get the Right to form a government. I don’t believe in a unity government, because a gulf exists between us and the Labor. It’s not the Labor that used to be; anti-Zionists have permeated Labor, so no unity government will hold. Therefore there is no point in trying.
What about building a coalition with the Right and the ultra-Orthodox and Kahlon like you say you want to, but then adding Labor afterward into a Likud-led government – which would be wider and more stable, and would present an image of unity around the world when we are facing an Iranian threat?
I doubt very much that Labor would agree to that, because they are now controlled by this extreme anti-Zionist part of their party. It’s a regrettable change, but it’s a fact.
Do you regret not supporting Rivlin’s candidacy for president?
I respect President Rivlin; he respects me. We have known each other for many years, since childhood really. I think he understands his role as president and from his point of view, he is going to take a substantive approach.
What happens if he says there has to be a rotation?
The way this will be decided is by the largest party and the most recommenders; it’s a balance between the two. That’s what our opponents understand.
What happens if it goes wrong – is your career over?
I think the crucial thing is not my career but this country’s security and its commitment to a free-market economy. That’s the economy. You have to ask that.
Is there any hope for convicted Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard to go free as long as Obama is president of the United States?
I never give up hope; I ask repeatedly again and again and again to have him freed. I almost got him freed twice with president [Bill] Clinton and president Obama. Neither came to fruition. I regret it, because he’s more than paid his dues and I think it’s time that he came home.
Will you allow the ultra-Orthodox to change decisions that were made in your government to curb haredi draft-dodging, fund Reform and Conservative rabbis and create an egalitarian prayer area near the Western Wall?
My governments have always struck a balance between the respect for the diversity of the Jewish world and of Israel and the importance of continuing our traditions. There is a delicate balance. I did that with the Neeman Commission on conversion in my first term, and with the Sharansky Commission on the Western Wall in this term. These are creative solutions that address the proper balance between tradition and change.
Judaism has always known how to balance inclusivity and exclusivity; it’s an important balance that must be maintained.
I’ve also asked the haredim to join the economy, and taken steps to that effect as finance minister and prime minister. I created the [IDF’s] Nahal Haredi [unit], which is a great change in which they come into service.
I wanted these changes to be made by consensus as much as possible and not through a clash, which doesn’t serve our people. When we have so many enemies seeking to annihilate us and they don’t draw a difference between Orthodox and secular, under those circumstances, I think my policy of respecting diversity and tradition will continue.
I don’t hear my opponents saying they will exclude haredi parties; they don’t say that. Their real passion is to retreat on the territorial front, on the security front on Iran, and bow their heads and hope someone will pat them on the back. That is their concept of statesmanship – it’s not mine.
The days when Jews bow their heads are over. To the extent that it depends on me, they will never come back.