With his Likud party trailing behind the Zionist Union by three-to-four seats in polls on the final weekend before Tuesday’s elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been engaged in a round of media interviews aiming to shore up the vote. On Friday afternoon, a few hours before the start of Shabbat, he spoke to the Times of Israel.
The surveys still suggest Netanyahu might have an easier time than Zionist Union leader Isaac (Boujie) Herzog in building a coalition, but momentum seems to have moved away from the Likud. The coalition arithmetic is perilous — and could be easily remade by factors including voter turnout, parties falling below the raised 3.25 percent electoral threshold, and the preferences of party leaders when recommending their choice of prime minister to President Reuven Rivlin once the votes are counted.
In our conversation, conducted by telephone, Netanyahu’s key aim was to plead with voters from the “national camp” — those who want to see him re-elected — to vote Likud rather than for its potential allies such as Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, Eli Yishai’s Yachad and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu. While the left was united going into these elections, he said, the right was split and there were no guarantees that even party leaders such as Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beytenu, his foreign minister and former ally, would back him for prime minister.
He also complained at what he called an unprecedented, “almost Soviet-style” campaign to oust him, waged with immense funding from overseas, and advanced aggressively in local media. The pro-Netanyahu Yisrael Hayom free daily was “a drop in the bucket” compared to the “mountain-range of words and images and slander that has been heaped on me,” he said.
Asked whether the Obama administration — whose emerging deal on Iran he went to congress 10 days ago to publicly oppose — should be counted among those who want to see him gone, Netanyahu said dryly that this didn’t require a tremendous leap of the imagination.
The Times of Israel: Do you fear that Iran would use the bomb against Israel if they got it?
Benjamin Netanyahu: Iran’s a very aggressive power without nuclear weapons. It’s rampaging throughout the Middle East and conducting a worldwide campaign of terror. So once they’re armed with nuclear weapons, the level of their conventional aggression would grow. And you can’t discount that they’ll have unconventional aggression.
The whole threshold — the ability of states to defend themselves in the Middle East against terrorism, against terrorist groups with a nuclear patron — would be severely impaired.
But equally there always exists a possibility that such a regime would use a weapon against Israel. I remember that one of the more moderate leaders, so-called moderate leaders, of Iran said Israel is a one-bomb country, while Iran is a many bomb country, signifying that they could contemplate first use against Israel.
Do you think that the current American administration doesn’t recognize the severity of the threat?
America is a very large county; Israel is one of the smallest. America lives in a safe neighborhood; we live in the most dangerous part of the planet. America is not directly threatened with its existence; we are. So naturally we have a difference of views on the severity of the threat. We are doing everything in our power to prevent this agreement which paves the way of Iran to the bomb.
You spoke yesterday of unnamed foreign governments trying to bring you down. Do you include the current American government?
There is an effort by leftist NGOs throughout the world, and left-leaning tycoons and consultants from various political parties, including from the United States, to try to bring down the Likud and me. They say so openly. They are conducting a campaign with tens of millions of dollars under the banner, ‘Anyone but Bibi.’ They understand that if I’m gone, the right will collapse. And that’s what they’re trying to do.
They’re trying to get Boujie and Tzipi in government here, because they realize that they will capitulate to all the dictates the international left wants to impose on Israel. They’re not doing it because they care about the cost of living in Israel. They care about getting Israel to retreat to the ’67 lines, to divide Jerusalem, and to accept this deal with Iran. I oppose them, and therefore I’m in their way.
The important thing is to recognize that the (Likud-led) national camp in Israel doesn’t have tens of millions of dollars, a slew of international consultants and cooperative organs of the press here on a vast scale, as Yedioth (Ahronoth) and Ynet are providing, with no holds barred.
Those who support the national camp have to understand that in the days that are left (before March 17) they have to rally around me and the Likud and vote Mahal (the Likud ballot slip). Because votes that don’t come to the Likud actually sustain the gap between Labor and Likud, giving Boujie and Tzipi the ability to form the government. And add to that that Kahlon and Liberman didn’t even commit to support us. Kahlon’s deputy, number 2, says that he’ll go with Herzog. Lapid will definitely go with Herzog. So voters of the national camp, if they want to close the gap, have to vote Likud. That includes the voters of (Jewish Home leader Naftali) Bennett and Shas. Everyone has to coalesce behind Likud quickly, or this plot will succeed.
You do have a significant resource in the media: You do have a newspaper [Yisrael Hayom / Israel Today] that is very supportive of you.
That is a drop in the bucket, nothing, compared to the mountains, the mountain-range of words and images and slander that has been heaped on me. I don’t think there’s been anything like it in any campaign. It’s almost Soviet-style. It’s organized, first of all, locally by (Yedioth’s) Noni Mozes. He uses tactics that no one uses, that Israel Today never uses — investigations, pressure, threats, unlike anything found anywhere.
But equally there is unfortunately the herd effect of most of the media that goes with him, out of leftist tendencies. We haven’t seen anything like it. And yet despite this fantastic campaign of slander and vilification, the majority of the public wants me as prime minster. Those who (express) an opinion (in polls), continuously and consistently, want me as prime minister. That’s definitely true of the national camp even more so. What they don’t get is, they think that I’ll be automatically elected. They think that I’m guaranteed to be the prime minister. In fact, that’s not true.
The only way that they can counteract this fantastic campaign, international and local, is to go and vote for Likud. That will ensure that I’m there and that Tzipi and Boujie will not be sitting in the Prime Minister’s Office.
You oppose this deal that the Obama administration supports. Do you think the Obama administration wants to see the back of you as prime minister?
Well, it’s not a tremendous leap of imagination, don’t you think? Why don’t you ask them?
It would not require a tremendous leap of the imagination?
Well, I suggest you ask them. But it’s clear that there’s an enormous campaign here from abroad, enormous, nothing short of that, in an unprecedented way, trying to get out the Arab vote in vast numbers, get out the left vote in vast numbers, and conduct a negative campaign against me on an unprecedented scale.
On the Palestinians, you’ve said that you don’t want to see Israel become a binational state, but you’re very wary, in fact you’re opposed at the moment to giving up territory.
The goal (of avoiding a binational state) stands, but in the current circumstances in the Middle East, any territory that you vacate will be used for an armed Islamist state against us. That’s exactly what happened in Lebanon. That’s what happened in Gaza. And since the Arab Spring that’s what’s going to happen exactly in the West Bank — in Judea and Samaria — if we vacate territory.
There’s a difference between what people would want in theory and what they’re going to get in practice. I’d focus on what will happen in practice, and everybody in his right mind understands that. So I don’t think we should proceed and vacate territory on a premise that doesn’t hold in the field.
After the war last summer, you wanted to see a process set in motion that would lead to the demilitarizing of Gaza. That hasn’t played out. What went wrong there? And what could go better on that front?
We’re blocking a certain inflow of arms, including with the efforts that the Egyptians are making. But it’s going to be a long haul. We haven’t finished with Hamas. We’ll have to rejoin that front. But I chose to deal them a very heavy blow without sinking inside Gaza, because I looked at other fronts as well: in Lebanon, the Golan front, Da’ash (the Islamic State), and of course Iran. We have a set of challenges around us that are unlike those facing any other nation.
And the question really of this election is, Who will deal with this? Will Tzipi and Boujie? They’ll deal with it? They’ll just capitulate before we even begin.
I think everybody understands that I take a very forceful, though responsible stance against all these threats. And that’s what this election will be about, once it’s over.
Right now, (there are) many other issues, and some of them are very important — especially housing, the price of housing, and the cost of living, and these I intend to address with full force if I’m reelected. There’s a lot to do. We’ve done a lot. We have a lot more to do.
Other than that, there are the crucial defense and security questions. And there’s a real divide between Tzipi and Boujie, on the one side, and me and the Likud on the other side. The public really has chosen: They really want us. They really want me and the Likud to lead. But they split their vote. While the left is united, the right is split. And I’m calling in the last few (remaining) days for the right to unite behind my leadership and my party, and vote for my party, to prevent the left from taking over Israel.
People prefer you to Herzog as prime minister, and yet your party is not doing well enough to guarantee that. Why is that?
Currently (some people) think they have the luxury of voting for other parties. Some of these parties will take their votes to the left. Lapid definitely will go to the left, (with the votes of) some people who would like me to be prime minister. Kahlon and Liberman could definitely go left. They don’t deny it. So they could be taking those votes away. And (there are) voters for Bennett and Shas who might think they have a choice to vote for those parties and still get me as prime minister. But in fact they won’t. The only way they’ll get me as prime minister is if the Likud gets sufficient votes. That’s something that’s not been understood. They think that they have two votes, two ballots. But they don’t. They have one. And those that want me as prime minister have to vote for my party, the Likud.
Do you fear for the well-being of Israel if you are not re-elected?
I think that the policies that I’m leading are essential for the future of the country. That’s why I’m doing it. Otherwise, why would I sustain the enormity of these personal attacks and slurs if I didn’t have a sense of mission? Of course I do. And I think that the direction Tzipi and Boujie would lead this country — with the full support of the Arab party that’s coming out in droves — I think it’s very dangerous for the country.
In our lifetime, to see Western European Jews coming to look at Israel as a destination of necessity is a very dire reality. You’ve said Jews of Europe should come to Israel, but isn’t that letting European governments off the hook?
No, (governments must) take care of the safety of their Jewish citizens like all other citizens. But equally, I think that in Israel at least Jews can stand proudly as belonging to a state of their own. Not without danger. Not without challenges. But one in which they can say proudly in the street, I am a Jew, and not have to look over their shoulder.