Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday vowed opposition to those who oppose his hawkish stance toward Iran, as he downplayed not receiving a phone call from Joe Biden since the new US president took office last month.
In a wide-ranging television interview ahead of the March 23 general elections, Netanyahu said he has “wonderful ties” with Democrats in Congress, after forging a close bond with Donald Trump and feuding with the Republican president’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama over the terms of the 2015 accord limiting Iran’s nuclear program.
Netanyahu said ties with US lawmakers were a “a question of policy” and not partisan affiliation.
“Whoever supports our policies, I’m with him. And whoever endangers us, for example [on policies] regarding a nuclear Iran, which is an existential threat to us, so I oppose that, and I don’t care if it’s Democrats.”
Pressed on the lack of phone call from Biden, Netanyahu said he was not bothered and insisted he would hear from the new US president.
“We’ve had friendly relations for nearly 40 years. We know each other and there are a lot of things we agree on. There are also disagreements on the matter of Iran and the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said.
Biden has said his administration will rejoin the deal with Iran, which Trump unilaterally pulled out of, if Tehran first returns to compliance with the pact. Netanyahu has been a leading critic of the agreement, which was reached when Biden was vice president, and warned against reengaging with Tehran on the accord.
The question about the phone call came amid growing speculation that the new US administration was deliberately taking a frosty approach to Netanyahu, but the prime minister and US officials have dismissed that notion.
The White House said on Friday that Biden was not intentionally snubbing Netanyahu by not calling him since the January 20 inauguration. Biden has called other US allies, but has not spoken with any Middle East leaders.
Netanyahu dismisses ‘fabricated cases’ against him
Netanyahu was also asked in the interview about his corruption trial and whether he would seek to halt the criminal proceedings against him if his right-wing religious bloc wins a majority in the elections.
“I won’t need to, because these surreal and fabricated cases are collapsing … This trial is going ahead, as you can see. And the further it goes, the more surreal and fabricated it is seen to be,” he said.
Netanyahu, who appeared in court last week to plead not guilty to the charges against him, repeated claims that he and his lawyers have made about the purported fabrication of the case against him and predicted the trial “will collapse long before” a verdict is reached. He also said he would not seek a plea bargain.
“I’m not seeking any plea bargain. On the contrary… I’m standing firm. Because I know that there is nothing there [to these cases],” he said.
The prime minister also claimed that to schedule the beginning of the evidentiary stage of the trial before March 23 would constitute election interference.
“The prosecution is now trying to get to the evidentiary stage before the elections — a crude intervention in the elections… I greatly hope the judges won’t surrender to that pressure… But I’ll win the elections in any case,” he said.
Asked if he believes he’ll get a fair trial, Netanyahu said, “I can only hope so,” while rejecting critics’ charges that he cannot run the country while on trial.
He said he did not believe the entire law enforcement system is rotten, saying that his criticism was directed at the state prosecution. He claimed that even Attorney General Mandelblit, whom he has frequently railed against for indicting him, “said they fabricate cases.”
Netanyahu acknowledged speaking once or twice since his indictment with Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, a witness in the cases whom prosecutors allege gave the premier and his wife lavish gifts in exchange for favors that benefited him financially.
“I told him happy holiday, I don’t remember what. One or two times [we spoke], I can no longer remember,” he said.
A report earlier this month said prosecutors are considering bringing forward Milchan’s testimony after it was discovered that Netanyahu’s legal team was in contact with him and might be illegally pressuring him. The contact came to light when Milchan apparently mistakenly called a senior police officer, thinking he was Netanyahu’s lawyer, Boaz Ben Tzur, who used to represent Milchan, according to Hebrew media reports.
No cabinet post for extremist Ben Gvir
Turning to the elections, Netanyahu said he wants Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of the right-wing extremist Otzma Yehudit party, to be a part of his coalition after the March 23 election, but insisted Ben Gvir “is not fit” to be a member of his cabinet or head a Knesset committee.
Netanyahu orchestrated a deal between Ben Gvir and Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich for a joint run that recent polls have shown will ensure their far-right slate will pass the Knesset electoral threshold. Netanyahu hopes to thus avoid a loss of right-wing votes and bolster his chances of forming a government after the election.
Asked repeatedly why Ben Gvir cannot be a cabinet member if he can be a part of his coalition, Netanyahu refused to answer. Asked if he believes Ben Gvir, a disciple of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane who has called for the expulsion of “disloyal” Arab Israelis, is racist, Netanyahu said: “His positions are not mine.”
Netanyahu defended his role in brokering the alliance between Ben Gvir and Smotrich, however, saying, “I want to bring the votes,” while reiterating he does not share the Otzma Yehudit leader’s views on Arab Israelis.
The prime minister also ruled out a repeat of the rotation of the prime ministership that he agreed to with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, but that he did not allow to come to pass, in the outgoing coalition.
“The citizens of Israel are fed up with rotation. We have a historic opportunity to establish a right-wing government, led by me, real, full [right-wing],” he said. “I think we’re going to win with much more than 61 seats, much more. I see the shift.”