Netanyahu issues election threat, muses over his legacy

Asked at DC event how he’d like to be remembered, PM cites his focus on security, liberating the economy; will go to polls if coalition partners don’t pledge to see out full term

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the the Economic Club of Washington in Washington, DC, on March 7, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / NICHOLAS KAMM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the the Economic Club of Washington in Washington, DC, on March 7, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / NICHOLAS KAMM)

WASHINGTON —  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday he wanted to be remembered for unfettering Israel’s economy during his decade-plus as the country’s leader, and also said he would call early elections if his coalition partners don’t pledge to see out the full term of this parliament through to late 2019.

Speaking at the Economic Club in Washington, the prime minister also said he has had no disagreements with US President Donald Trump, and downplayed his famously prickly relationship with former president Barack Obama.

Asked what he wanted his legacy to be, Netanyahu said he wished to be remembered as a “Defender of Israel. Liberator of its economy.”

The comments came as Netanyahu has become embroiled in a number of corruption scandals that have threatened to topple him from power after four terms and over 12 years. During his time as premier he has pushed free-market policies and overseen a flowering of Israel’s economy, mostly thanks to a burgeoning tech sector.

Asked what he liked best about being prime minister, he quipped dryly, “Investigations.”

While he has been in Washington for the past several days, a coalition crisis has also threatened to fell his government and necessitate early elections. Though polls have shown him cruising to another term, many analysts predict Netanyahu would face a bruising campaign that would become a referendum on graft suspicions against him.

“What I want is to be able to complete the term of this government, which is about November ’19,” he said at the event. “If the coalition agrees, that’s what we’ll do. If not, we’ll go to elections.”

Netanyahu said he and Trump always saw eye to eye, though he said he had managed to have positive relationships with Bill Clinton and Obama as well.

“Contrary to the general press buzz feed, I actually had very good personal relationships with all of them, but I had disagreements with them,” he said.  “The important thing is we were quite clear about that, we didn’t hide that.”

“With President Trump we have fewer disagreements. In fact, we haven’t had any disagreements,” he added, answering questions from David Rubenstein, the American financier and philanthropist best known as the co-founder and co-executive chairman of The Carlyle Group.

Netanyahu had a famously volatile relationship with Obama over almost eight years, with the two clashing, sometimes publicly, over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Speaking at the capital’s Renaissance Hotel, just blocks away from the White House where he met with Trump on Monday, the prime minister said his American counterpart asked him for advice before making his controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there.

“He did ask me one time what did I think, whether there would be outbreaks of violence or massive collapse,” Netanyahu explained. “I said, ‘I can’t tell you with 100 percent certainty, but I don’t see it happening. And if it does, we’ll shoulder the risk.’ But it didn’t happen.”

The December decision to move the embassy, coming after warnings of serious violence, was met with several weekends of unrest as well as riots outside American missions throughout the Muslim world, though the protests quickly faded.

Rubinstein asked Netanyahu whether he now favored a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as he has wavered over the last year from his previous position, first voiced in 2009, for the emergence of a Palestinian state.

“I want the Palestinians to have all of the power to govern themselves, but not the power to threaten us,” he said. “Israel must have the overriding security responsibility for the area west of the Jordan River. Does that comport with full sovereignty? I don’t know, but that’s what we need to live.”

He also touted ties with the Arab world, saying the dynamics of the Middle East were changing in a way that would allow countries to forge ties with Israel even before a peace deal was struck with the Palestinians.

“Because of the growing danger of Iran, more and more, I would say virtually all of the Arab countries no longer see Israel as their enemy but their vital ally in confronting militant Islam,” he said. “They used to say that if we make peace with Palestinians, we will break out and normalize relations with the Arab world. I think it’s now the other way around.”

He then warned against the risk of relinquishing territory in the modern Middle East, where vacuums risk being filled by extremist forces. If Israel evacuated the West Bank, he said, “either you’ll have Hamas coming in — that’s Iran — or ISIS coming in. That’s a catastrophe.”

The longtime Israeli leader said most Israelis would support a theoretical deal with the Palestinians “if they thought it would get them peace.” But then he posed the question of under what conditions that deal would transpire.

“A real deal for a real peace? Yes,” he said. “A fake deal for a state that would seek to drive us into the sea, which is not very far away? No.”

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