Mocks 'great dictator' reputation; won't vow to honor court

PM: Saudi deal likely but time is short; MBS a ‘visionary’; coalition would back accord

Netanyahu tells US TV there are ‘major issues’ on enrichment; regarding concessions to Palestinians, says far-right partners’ ‘talk a talk’ but ’eminently sensible’ on decisions

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to CNN about Saudi normalization, September 23, 2023 (CNN screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to CNN about Saudi normalization, September 23, 2023 (CNN screenshot)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in US TV interviews Friday that a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia was “likely” but that the current window of opportunity would be open for only the next few months.

He noted that there were “major issues” with a proposal that uranium enrichment be permitted on Saudi soil, but told CNN that if the various core components of an accord were resolved, the agreement would garner “a groundswell of support, on the right, on the left and from the international community.”

If the obstacles can be overcome, he added, “I’ll carry my coalition, and the country with it.”

He also repeatedly refused to promise that he would respect High Court rulings if the justices struck down legislation relating to his judicial overhaul bid, and said its provisions were being misrepresented.

Fox News and CNN broadcast interviews with Netanyahu after the prime minister told the United Nations that Israel was “on the cusp” of a historic deal with Saudi Arabia.

Normalization is “possible” and “likely,” Netanyahu told CNN, adding: “Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States share a common goal — to make a quantum leap… We have an opportunity with the United States to change the Middle East forever.”

“I think that we have a window of opportunity, it’s the next few months. If we don’t achieve it in the next few months, we might delay it by quite a few years,” Netanyahu told Fox News. “We’d probably in the end achieve it because it makes sense.”

When asked about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Netanyahu told Fox he had been “delighted to hear what he had to say,” and described the Saudi leader as “quite a visionary.”

The premier then echoed the Saudi crown prince’s comment: “I think we’re getting closer to peace every day that passes.”

Bin Salman told Fox News on Wednesday that “every day we get closer” to his country normalizing ties with Israel, while clarifying that the Palestinian issue is still a “very important” component of the process and declaring that Saudi Arabia will have to obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran does.

In his Friday interview with Fox News, Netanyahu sounded optimistic on the prospects of an agreement between Riyadh and Jerusalem.

“I think that when you have three leaders and three countries that avidly want a result — the United States under President Biden, Saudi Arabia under the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israel under my premiership — I think that really raises the possibility we’ll succeed,” he said.

In exchange for normalizing ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia is asking the US for a major mutual defense pact, significant arms deals and cooperation in establishing a civilian nuclear program on Saudi soil, as well as Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

In the interview with CNN, Netanyahu was asked about potential uranium enrichment on Saudi soil.

“I think there are major issues there,” he said.

“We would not do anything that would in any way jeopardize Israel’s security,” Netanyahu said, adding that Jerusalem and Washington stand shoulder-to-shoulder on that matter.

There is opposition in Washington to allowing Riyadh to enrich uranium — as well as in Israel from opposition lawmakers as well as some experts.

According to a Thursday Wall Street Journal report, Netanyahu has told top nuclear and security experts in Israel to cooperate with US negotiators on a proposal for a “US-run uranium enrichment operation.”

“I will not jeopardize Israel’s interests and national security, but I will also not jeopardize success by speaking about it publicly,” Netanyahu told CNN.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the APEC Leader’s Informal Dialogue with Guests during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation APEC summit, November 18, 2022, in Bangkok, Thailand. (Athit Perawongmetha/Pool Photo via AP)

Speaking to Fox, Netanyahu responded to bin Salman’s comments to the outlet earlier in the week that if Iran were to get a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia would “have to get one” also.

The premier said that Iran should not be permitted to have a nuclear weapon, and then “we won’t be in this conundrum.”

On the Palestinians

When asked about potential concessions to the Palestinians as part of the Saudi agreement, and the declared objections of his far-right coalition partners, Netanyahu told CNN that those coalition partners are “eminently sensible” when it comes to decisions, although they “talk a talk, which is obvious; that’s what politicians [do].”

“When everyone sees the full package, what we bring to the State of Israel, I think there’s a very good chance everyone will go along with it,” he said. “My coalition partners joined me, I didn’t join them.”

Netanyahu was asked if he would be willing to blow up his coalition if necessary to get the agreement.

“I don’t think it’ll require that,” he said.

When asked if his coalition partners would agree to the potential concessions, Netanyahu said, “well, it’s whether I go along with it,” as well as his partners from the Likud party.

Twelve members of Netanyahu’s Likud party published an open letter earlier this week, warning the premier against making concessions to the Palestinians as part of an agreement with Riyadh.

Netanyahu noted in response that Likud is a democratic party. “People can say what they want. They even criticize me, can you imagine? I’m supposed to be this ‘great dictator’. They can say whatever they want.”

Last month, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich also said there would be no concessions, and on Friday, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said his party would bolt the coalition if concessions were made.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attend a vote on the ‘reasonableness’ bill at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu told CNN that the Palestinians should be “part of the process, which doesn’t mean they have a veto.”

“I think that making peace with Saudi Arabia, and basically ending the Arab-Israeli conflict, will also help us end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” he said.

Netanyahu was questioned by Fox News on potential West Bank annexation — a coalition demand from far-right partners in the Religious Zionism party — and whether he would pledge not to annex as part of an agreement.

The prime minister responded that “the coalition is not the issue,” and added that he thought they were “responsible enough to go along” with what was necessary for an agreement, and noted that US President Joe Biden had told him he “wanted to keep the political option of two states open.”

In his Friday speech at the UN, Netanyahu held up a map of the “New Middle East” which did not show the West Bank or Gaza Strip demarcated.

Judicial overhaul

Netanyahu would not give a clear answer when he was asked by both Fox News and CNN whether he would abide by a potential future High Court decision to strike down the reasonableness law, which curtailed judicial oversight over the decisions of the government and ministers.

Netanyahu claimed that the financial and societal damage done to the country since the start of the year was not due to his government’s program to overhaul the judiciary.

“I think the damage is not the reform, it’s the way the reform is misrepresented, as some kind of collapse of democracy,” Netanyahu said.

Asked by CNN about US concerns over the overhaul, he said it was being misreported and misunderstood, prompting interviewer Kaitlan Collins to query: “You think the White House misunderstands what you are proposing?”

“I hope they understand it better now after this discussion,” Netanyahu said. “Ultimately it’s our democratic decision, which will be prudent and responsible.”

Regarding his readiness, or otherwise, to honor rulings of the top court, Netanyahu told CNN: “I think we should abide by the Supreme Court rulings, and the Supreme Court should abide by the Basic Laws that the Knesset legislates.”

Pushed again on the matter, Netanyahu refused to directly answer, instead repeating his previous statement.

Asked a third time to answer it as a yes or no question, Netanyahu said, “Let’s hope we both do the prudent thing and remain in the basic principles that guide our democracy… In Israel, the Supreme Court has all the checks but no balance.”

“But it’s the only check on you and your coalition,” Collins objected. “What are the other checks?”

Said Netanyahu: “They can cancel a lot of laws, but do they have the power to cancel Basic Laws?”

A photo provided by an anti-judicial overhaul activist shows thousands protesting in Tel Aviv, September 9, 2023. (Gilad Furst)

Earlier this month, an unprecedented panel of all 15 justices presided over a highly charged session in response to petitions against the law, enacted in July, which restricts judicial review of government decisions using the rubric of reasonableness.

The law is the only component of the coalition’s broader judicial overhaul program which has been passed by the Knesset so far. Like other parts of the radical reform agenda, it has faced massive opposition from protest groups and opposition parties.

A court ruling striking down a Basic Law would be unprecedented. If the coalition were not to abide by such a ruling, they would potentially cause a constitutional crisis.

The court is not expected to rule for several months.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and all 14 other judges hear petitions against the ‘reasonableness law’ at the court in Jerusalem on September 12, 2023. (DEBBIE HILL / POOL / AFP)

It had been expected that Netanyahu would be interviewed by Israeli media outlets while on his trip to the US, but these interviews were canceled.

While he has given multiple interviews to international media, Netanyahu has refused to sit down with any mainstream Israeli news outlets, including the traditional sit-downs ahead of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

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