Peres tells Arab media “Assad must go,” and Netanyahu again hints at it too
By Tom Gross
One of the biggest slanders put out by at least three respected columnists for major American and British liberal newspapers in recent months is that Israel has been eager to stop the spread of democracy in the Arab world. (All three of these columnists are subscribers to this list, and two of them are Jewish and persistent critics of successive Israeli governments.)
It has been a great disappointment to many of Israel’s detractors in the West that negative remarks about Israel have been almost completely absent from the chants and slogans of the millions of pro-democracy protestors that have taken to the streets of Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world this year – just as they have been absent over the last two years from the chants of pro-democracy demonstrators in Persian Iran.
Israeli politicians, while preferring not to interfere too vocally in the internal affairs of Arab states, have, when asked, made clear that they prefer to have democratic neighbors rather than dictatorial ones, both for the sake of human rights in the Arab world, and for the sake of peace with their own country.
In the latest such remarks, Israeli President Shimon Peres, at a special press conference with the Arabic language media in honor of Ramadan, said that Syrian President Assad should step down from power.
(I repeat them here since the Western media more often than not ignore these kind of statements.)
“I so admire the very brave Syrian protesters,” said Peres at the press conference held on Tuesday at Beit HaNassi, the official Israeli presidential residence in Jerusalem. More than 30 journalists and television crews participated in the event from Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and the local Arabic language press in Israel. (Israel has – by far – the most open media environment for Arab journalists in the Middle East, not that you would ever know it by reading the slew of anti-Israeli invective from certain commentators, academics, and politicized NGOs in Western Europe and North America.)
Peres (pictured below) added: “Assad must go. He has killed 2,000 innocent civilians, thousands have been imprisoned. The sooner he will leave the more his people will appreciate it. There is no chance he can defeat the people. If Syria’s ruler doesn’t realize this he has already lost his place. I truly admire the Syrians stance against their ruler. It is easy to go and demonstrate, but when they are shooting at you? It is amazing. Their bravery and firm stance deserves respect. I believe that people who are interested in peace will prevail. Then it will be easier to achieve peace between Israel and Syria.”
On the subject of the young Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, kidnapped while still a teenager from inside Israel a year after Israel had left Gaza and held alone in a Hamas dungeon in Gaza for the last five years, Peres said: “To take a young man and put the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict on his shoulders? This is not logical. To imprison him for more than 5 years without seeing daylight, doctors or a visit from the Red Cross? I am sure there are many people, not only here today, that are embarrassed by this behavior.”
Peres also discussed the Palestinian peace process, the Iranian nuclear issue, and Israel’s relations with the Arab world, and answered a lengthy set of questions from the Arab journalists present.
Along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jewish spiritual leaders in Israel, Peres sent Ramadan greetings to the Muslim world and to the Muslim citizens of Israel.
“I use this platform as President of Israel to send Ramadan greetings to the millions of Muslims in Israel and throughout the world,” said Peres. “As in years past, millions of Muslims around the world, in the Middle East, and in Israel are preparing to start the month of Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayer, and spirituality. The month is dedicated to introspection, spiritual practices, quality time with friends and family, and time to consider the present and future – as individuals and collectively. This year there is an additional significance to the soul searching of Ramadan – the Arab world around us is changing. Young people are demanding their freedom, social welfare, and prosperity. The younger generation wants change. I wish the younger generation in Arab countries success in creating a better society, more open, and more prosperous. Ramadan Kareem.”
He also went out of his way to send a special Ramadan greeting to the Iranian people.
In separate remarks, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu gave a rare interview to a Saudi TV station, Al-Arabiya. (Officially Saudi Arabia is at a state of war with Israel, but sources in the Israeli Prime Minister’s office tell me that sometimes Saudi and other Arab journalists are fairer to Israel than many Western ones.)
In the very first question, Netanyahu was asked: “Are you worried about the situation and the current developments in Syria?”
He replied: “Well, I’m sure the Syrian people are worried about it, because they are obviously showing enormous courage in the face of very strong brutality. Look, we don’t intervene in what happens in Syria, but we obviously would like to have peaceful relations with Syria, and we can only hope for a good future for the people of Syria – they deserve a good future, one of peace and one of freedom.”
The Saudi interviewer then followed up by asking: “So do you support what’s so called the revolution in Syria?”
Understandably, given how Israel’s opponents (especially those in Arab regimes) twist virtually anything Netanyahu says against him, he was careful in his reply, though his message is clear: “You know, anything I would say would be used, not against me, but against the process of genuine reform that people would like to see in Syria. So we don’t intervene in Syria, but it doesn’t mean that we’re not concerned. A. We’d like the peace and quiet on the Israeli-Syrian border to be maintained, and B. I would like to ultimately, have that turned into a formal peace between Israel and Syria. And C., I think that people, the young people in Syria deserve a better future, you know.”
Netanyahu continued: “I hope that we could sit down one day and I could tell you that Israel is not the only democracy in the Middle East, it’s one [neighboring] many Arab democracies. I recognize this may take time. I recognize it may have its ups and downs. But this would be a wonderful thing. Why? Because, if there’s genuine democracy in the Arab world, in the Arab countries, then there will be genuine peace. Because a genuine democracy reflects the desires of the people, and most people – Arabs, Jews, anyone – they don’t want their sons and daughters dying on battlefields. They want peace. So the spread of democracy is good for peace. It may be difficult. It may go through a period of turbulence, of convulsion, but ultimately, I think it would lead to a good direction.”
A transcript of the full interview, in which Netanyahu also answered questions on the peace process, Israel’s alleged “nuclear program,” and other topics, can be read if you scroll down below.
The interview was conducted in English but Netanyahu also spoke some words in Arabic, including “Ramadan Karim” (happy Ramadan) and “Kul Aam wa-antum bi-khair” (happy holidays).
No Arab leader has said anything in Hebrew to Israelis since assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat wished Israelis peace in Hebrew in the late 1970s. It would be nice if Israeli and Arab leaders would send greetings in their respective languages more regularly in future.
(Among my previous pieces on Syria, please see here.)
(You can comment on this dispatch here: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia. You first have to press “Like” on that page.)
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s interview with Al-Arabiya TV of Saudi Arabia
July 21, 2011
Interviewer: Mr. Netanyahu, at the beginning, let me ask you, are you worried about the situation and the current developments in Syria?
PM Netanyahu: Well, I’m sure the Syrian people are worried about it, because they are obviously showing enormous courage in the face of very strong brutality. Look, we don’t intervene in what happens in Syria, but we obviously would like to have peaceful relations with Syria, and we can only hope for a good future for the people of Syria – they deserve a good future, one of peace and one of freedom.
Interviewer: So do you support what’s so called the revolution in Syria?
PM Netanyahu: You know, anything I would say would be used, not against me, but against the process of genuine reform that people would like to see in Syria. So we don’t intervene in Syria, but it doesn’t mean that we’re not concerned. A. We’d like the peace and quiet on the Israeli-Syrian border to be maintained, and B. I would like to ultimately, have that turned into a formal peace between Israel and Syria. And C., I think that people, the young people in Syria deserve a better future, you know.
Interviewer: Prime Minister, you just mentioned about peace along the borders between Israel and Syria. Now some people would say that the present regime of Bashar el Assad and before him, his father Hafez el Assad, in fact, kept peace, you know, like for about 40 years along those borders to the extent that some people would say that the regime is indispensible from the point of view of Israel. Is that right?
PM Netanyahu: No. No, it’s not right. I mean, I hear people saying it, but the point of fact, we’re not there to chose the next regime, the next government of Syria. I think it’s for the people of Syria to choose. But we didn’t have peace. We had a state of peace, no peace-no war. Even though, several people tried, including myself, secret negotiations to try to move towards a formal peace. I think what has also disturbed this is that Syria supports and has supported Hezbollah and Iran, in Lebanon. You know, the people of Lebanon, five years ago wanted to have their Cedar Revolution. Iran took it away from them with Hezbollah and with Syrian support.
Interviewer: But the borders remain quiet, yes?
PM Netanyahu: They remain quiet since the Second Lebanon War, and I hope they remain quiet in the future as well.
Interviewer: Now, as a result of what’s happening in Syria now, do you think the effects might be reflected into, like in a situation probably in Southern Lebanon or on the borders between Israel and Syria?
PM Netanyahu: Well, I hope not. I hope that no-one in Syria thinks of having a distraction, if I use that term to try to warm up, in a bad sense, heat up the border between us. And I hope Iran, or Hezbollah are not tempted to do this in order to shift attention away from what is happening in Syria. I think that would be bad for the people of Lebanon, bad for the people of Syria, and bad for Israel, bad for peace. So I hope it doesn’t happen.
Interviewer: But it’s been said, Prime Minister, that Israel is continuing with the military exercises along the borders with Lebanon, which was taken as a signal that Israel probably is preparing something.
PM Netanyahu: No. We’ve been doing this on a regular basis, because we’ve been attacked on a regular basis. You know, we had about 6,000 rockets fired, without any reason, from Lebanon by Hezbollah against Israel. Against Israel’s cities, its children, its homes. We have no claims. We went out of Lebanon. We haven’t a claim on a single centimeter of Lebanese territory. But they fired these thousands of rockets, so naturally…
Interviewer: Yeah, but the Israeli planes don’t stop really incursing into Lebanese space, yes?
PM Netanyahu: But we’re not seeking anything from Lebanon, except our own defense. We don’t seek anything from Lebanon. We say to Lebanon, and to Hezbollah, that unfortunately governs now Lebanon on behalf of Iran, we say, Don’t attack us, you know. We’ll respect you, you respect us. You know, I’d much prefer that the Cedar Revolution would have been completed, because by now, I wouldn’t have to say that. By now we would have had a peace treaty with Lebanon. If the forces of moderation, the forces of progress would have been successful in the Cedar Revolution, there would have been a peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon.
Interviewer: So you think that what’s happening, in a way has a rather negative effect on the peace process in the region?
PM Netanyahu: I think there is a big question, you know, where does the Arab Spring go. If it goes towards democracy, towards reform, maybe a controlled reform process, towards modernity and towards greater freedom, which I think the Arab people deserve, there are a lot of young people in the Arab world, and they want a different future. Then I think it’s good for Israel. If it goes towards an Iranian style dictatorship, as it did, unfortunately in Iran and in Lebanon, then it’s bad. It’s bad for the peoples there, but it’s also bad for peace.
Interviewer: But in Lebanon, if you’re talking about the present government, that was as a result of elections, after all, and this is democracy, isn’t it?
PM Netanyahu: Well, we’ll see. I think that every time you get Hezbollah in there, they’ll undermine democracy, they take power. They may use the process of democracy in order to subvert democracy, in order to do Iran’s bidding, to wipe out their opponents. You know, it’s not the kind of democracy that I think the young people in Lebanon and the young people throughout the world, the Arab world, want and nor the one that they deserve.
Interviewer: But Mr. Netanyahu, it’s been said that you in Israel, here, probably wouldn’t like to see democracy or democratic regimes in the Arab world, because this would refute the Israeli claim that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Is that right?
PM Netanyahu: I hope that we could sit down one day and I could tell you that Israel is not merely not the only democracy in the Middle East, it’s one of many Arab democracies. I recognize this may take time. I recognize it may have its ups and downs. But this would be a wonderful thing. Why? Because, if there’s genuine democracy in the Arab world, in the Arab countries, then there will be genuine peace. Because a genuine democracy reflects the desires of the people, and most people – Arabs, Jews, anyone – they don’t want their sons and daughters dying on battlefields. They want peace. So the spread of democracy is good for peace. It may be difficult. It may go through a period of turbulence, of convulsion, but ultimately, I think it would lead to a good direction.
Interviewer: Now, Prime Minister, it’s been said, again, that the so-called revolutions in the Arab world now, are resulting into the Islamists gaining the upper hand in the politics of some Arab countries, Egypt for one, for example. Is that worrying you?
PM Netanyahu: I think it should worry the Arab peoples, because they want, I think they want a world of progress, and they want a world of genuine reform. They don’t want to go back to a dark medievalism. They want a different world. They’ve already seen the world, they’ve seen the future.
Interviewer: I’m asking your opinion, Mr. Netanyahu, not the Arab…
PM Netanyahu: I think it’s bad for them, I think it’s bad for us. Because, I think that there is a militant Islamic element that doesn’t want to recognize Israel, so naturally it’s bad for us. But I think it doesn’t recognize the kind of freedoms and the kind of changes that many of the people in the Arab world, especially the young people expect. Give them a genuine choice then you’ll see what they chose, and I think the radical Islamic parties, don’t want the same thing that most of the Arab peoples want.
Interviewer: But it’s reported that even the Americans are now trying to talk to those elements, if you like, which appear as taking upper hand in the Arab politics, i.e. Muslim Brothers, for example. Would you also try to do business with them, yourself?
PM Netanyahu: Look, we will always look for people who want peace.
Interviewer: Including the Islams?
PM Netanyahu: We will want… We don’t nullify people based on their religious belief, but we do expect them to, in their world view, to have a place for the State of Israel. If people say the State of Israel shouldn’t exist, it should be wiped off the face of the earth, the way Iran or Hezbollah or Hamas say, there’s not much place to go. If people have different views, we’ll listen to those views, but I think that from two points of view, one from the internal Arab point of view, if people say, we want democracy, then ask all those who competed in democracy to respect democracy. I think this is, you can’t ask people to say, alright, we’ll open the democratic door to those who want to destroy democracy. And the second is, from my point of view, I’m willing to negotiate peace with anyone that’s willing to accept the right of my people and my country to live.
Interviewer: Mr. Netanyahu, let me be more specific. Is it fair to say that you lost, in fact, a very important political partner, and probably good friend, with the departure of Mr. Mubarak from power in Egypt?
PM Netanyahu: I respected President Mubarak. He held peace between Israel and Egypt for over 30 years, and that’s a great achievement, and I think it should not be forgotten. What happens in Egypt depends of course on the will of the Egyptian people. But I think Egypt, I see that the current government, which is a transition government, is committed to the peace. They’ve said so openly. And in practice this is also taking place.
Will the next government in Egypt be committed to peace? I think so, because I think the stakes are too high to go back to what we had. I remember what we had. I was… Most people in the Arab world are young, so they don’t remember, but I remember what it was like as a young person, as a young Israeli, when we had a state of war with Egypt. I nearly died in a fire fight inside the Suez Canal. A lot of my friends died there. We don’t want to come back to those terrible days, it’s a terrible thing.
Interviewer: But of course, at the same time, Arabs were dying at the same time in those wars.
PM Netanyahu: Exactly. Exactly. But I have a recollection of that, and many young people maybe don’t remember that, but it’s hard for me to believe that the new Egyptian government would want to turn back the clock, go back to the terrible days of wars that we had, when the benefits of peace are evident. Not only are people not dying, but also in having trade, in having American support, having tourism. I think it’s in the vested interest of Egypt to continue…
Interviewer: So you are not worried, Mr. Netanyahu, about the future of the peace treaty, just to conclude, with Egypt, or the flow of natural gas from Egypt to Israel.
PM Netanyahu: Look, I worry, because there are people who don’t want what I just said. And they may subvert the democratic process and take over.
Interviewer: Who are these people, in your view?
PM Netanyahu: Well, I know that Iran is looking at that, trying to meddle in every place right now in the Arab world…
Interviewer: Is it a reading of the situation or based on information?
PM Netanyahu: No, no. Iran is trying to meddle in many many countries. I won’t be more specific on that. But it doesn’t want peace and it doesn’t want democracy. It doesn’t want reform and it doesn’t want change. If it did, you’d see a different Iran. Ask the Iranian people what they get. So, am I worried? Yeah. If they subvert the democratic process, if they get people to move away from peace, of course we worry. My hope is for a better result, because I think given a chance, let the Egyptian people choose, I think they’ll choose peace.
Interviewer: Mr. Netanyahu, I want to move on now to the Palestinian issue. Now, the Palestinians say that you have left them no choice in fact but to go to the United Nations so seek, if you like, or to make a bid for statehood. Have you anything to do now, or to offer, in fact, to preempt such a move?
PM Netanyahu: Well, first of all, I take… I challenge the premise and the question. Because here’s what I did. The first day that I came in I called for direct negotiations without preconditions. Shortly afterwards I lifted 400 roadblocks and checkpoints allowing the growth of the Palestinian economy, which I very much welcome. Third day, I called for two states for two peoples, in my speech in Bar Ilan University. Believe me, not an easy thing for a Likud leader to do. I did it. Fourth thing I did was I agreed on a freeze on new construction in the settlements. Something that no leader Labor or Likud did before me. The fifth thing I did, was I agreed with President Obama, if necessary, for another three months extension of the freeze.
So these are five things I did asking for direct negotiations, and I still think, if you ask me: what is there to do right now? I think we’ve shown we really want the negotiations to come. I’m willing to sit down with President Abbas right now and negotiate without pre-conditions.
Interviewer: On the basis of what? 242?
PM Netanyahu: On the basis of the desire of both of our peoples to have peace. I think we both agreed, I agreed, that we need to have the idea of two states for two peoples. I think it’s unnecessary to try to conclude the negotiations before we start them. We’ll never get anywhere. We just wasted two years.
Interviewer: But, Mr. Prime Minister, Obama, for example, talked about pre-1967 war borders.
PM Netanyahu: Yeah.
Interviewer: Now, do you subscribe to this point?
PM Netanyahu: Well, he also said the border would be different from the one that existed on June 4, 1967. It has to take into account demographic changes and other needs and so on.
Interviewer: So what’s your view yourself?
PM Netanyahu: So obviously I agree with that part and we may have different views, but it’s not important. Because we’ll bring those views to the table, President Abbas and myself. We can’t negotiate the outcome before we negotiate, so I think the right thing to do is to sit down and negotiate, and I think if I negotiate a peace with President Abbas and I believe this peace will give Israel the security it requires, I think I can deliver this peace, and I think it’s a big mistake not to use this opportunity. We’ve just wasted two years on a non-issue or an issue that has to be negotiated, the settlements. But the only way we’ll get a resolution is to sit down, pretty much as we’re doing right now, except with all due respect, I need the leader of the Palestinian people to sit down and negotiate a peace.
Interviewer: But, Mr. Netanyahu, you have been negotiating with the Palestinians for the last…about 17 years, with all that you said in fact, and nothing happening.
PM Netanyahu: Well, not quite. First of all, I haven’t been, but you’re right that six Israeli prime ministers, myself included, have been negotiating and we all agreed to a Palestinian state. So why didn’t we have peace? Some of them, two of them, made very generous concessions and we all recognize that we’ll have to make difficult compromises for peace. I recognize that.
Interviewer: The difficult compromises, would they include Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees?
PM Netanyahu: Well, you know that these issues will be brought up and we’re prepared to…
Interviewer: So they’re on the table, those issues.
PM Netanyahu: Yeah, everything is on the table, but we need to get to the table, and this is my point. The main point that I’m saying is we haven’t concluded a peace either because the Palestinian leadership did not want to get to the end. Maybe they had reasons they didn’t want to get to the end of the negotiations. In my case, my frustration in the last two years is we can’t re-start the negotiations, and I repeat what I said to you a minute ago because I think this is the most important thing. I’m prepared to negotiate with President Abbas directly for peace between our two peoples right now. We can do it here in my home in Jerusalem, we can do it in Ramallah, we can do it anywhere.
Interviewer: You would be prepared also to suspend settlement activity again?
PM Netanyahu: Well, I’ve said that I think that discussing pre-conditions is a mistake, and I don’t place pre-conditions.
Interviewer: This was the reason really for the suspension of talks.
PM Netanyahu: Yeah, but why? They negotiated for 18 years under Oslo without pre-conditions. To put pre-conditions is to negotiate about what?
Interviewer: Is it so difficult for you to suspend activities of that kind?
PM Netanyahu: Well, it wasn’t easy but I did it, and no previous prime minister…
Interviewer: But again, you can’t do it again?
PM Netanyahu: Well, ask yourself a different question: why are we wasting time on this? It’s an important issue, it has to be part of the final settlement negotiation, but you know, if I told your viewers right now a fact that will shock them: the entire area, built-up areas of the settlements, takes up 2 percent of the West Bank. It doesn’t gobble up the West Bank, it doesn’t preempt the map of a Palestinian state. It’s a side issue that has been turned into a great issue that stops us from getting into the issue.
Interviewer: But it’s not a continuous piece of land for the Palestinians.
PM Netanyahu: No, you’re right, of course, we talked about the idea, the fact that the majority of Israelis in fact live in a few urban blocs that form a small part of this area. But these are issues that have to be addressed in a negotiation. But they can be addressed and they will be addressed only if we get to the negotiations.
Interviewer: But notwithstanding what you said, Mr. Netanyahu, some people would say: if the settlement activity continues at the pace, the current pace, in fact probably eventually there will be nothing really for the Palestinians to negotiate about with you.
PM Netanyahu: This is not true. First of all, the pace of settlements is not…we haven’t built new ones, there are no new settlements. The addition of housing is minor compared to the size of the territory or even the existing pattern. But I think these are relevant issues to discuss. I’ve said in my speech before, not so much to the US Congress, I’ve said it also in the US Congress and in the Israeli Knesset, I’ve said: look, some settlements will be left outside the final borders of Israel. I said we’re prepared to address all the major issues. The important thing is, we could spend a lot of time negotiating about the negotiations or we can actually get down and do it. My suggestion is to get down and do it. I think that the Palestinians are missing up a great opportunity. There is a government here and a prime minister here who, exactly contrary to the received wisdom, is able to deliver a peace settlement and wants to deliver the peace settlement. You can’t do it if you’re a marginal party in Israel or if you don’t represent the large consensus. Begin did it once and I can do it again, but I need a partner.
Interviewer: Mr. Netanyahu, what’s being said, in fact, can you really deliver, in view of the composition of your coalition, in fact, you are really so much under pressure…
PM Netanyahu: No, not at all. You just asked me about the settlement freeze. This was done by a Likud prime minister with this coalition. That’s quite impressive, given that it wasn’t done by anyone, by Labor or Likud. I call for two states for two peoples. Now, I did that and not in front of Al-Arabia, which I respect, but I did it in front of a mostly religious gathering in Bar Ilan University. You know, I think that when I speak for a peace agreement with the Palestinians that takes care, that takes into consideration Israel’s security interests and national interests, but I will bring it forward to the people, then I think I can pass it. I can negotiate it. The coalition doesn’t prevent me from negotiating and I’ll surprise you – I think that most Israelis, including members, voters of this coalition government will support a peace agreement that I will bring. The tragedy of what is happening now is that the Palestinians are again missing an opportunity, again missing an opportunity to negotiate this peace.
Interviewer: Okay. Now, you are adding in fact another, in a way, if one can say it, like a pre-condition that the Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
PM Netanyahu: No, I’m not.
Interviewer: You’re not?
PM Netanyahu: No, I said that I think that for the conclusion of the negotiations. I put no pre-conditions on beginning negotiations. I may have my ideas, you expressed one of them, but I’ve often said, and I’ve said this to President Abbas, to Abu-Mazen, several times. I’ve said: look, I can ask you to have all sorts of pre-conditions, you can ask me. Not for entering negotiations. You’re free to bring up anything you want in the negotiations, but let’s get on with it.
Interviewer: Prime Minister, briefly please. Some people would say that this issue of the Jewish identity of the State of Israel would really bring into reality what’s called the transfer of the Israeli Arabs.
PM Netanyahu: never. Never. I’m absolutely against that.
Interviewer: What about the laws or the bills of laws which are being enacted in the Knesset every other time? They described them as racist.
PM Netanyahu: No, this is wrong and we won’t allow it. It’s not what I believe in. You know, I grew up in a very…what you would call a “liberal tradition” that says about Israel: it’s the state of the Jewish people, they never had a state, but non-Jews, in this case Arabs, live here, and they’re entitled to all the rights in Israel. But I think that you’re going to have a Palestinian state, to which Palestinians can come freely; there’s going to be a Jewish state, which means that non-Jews live there and enjoy all the rights, but Jewish people from outside the world can come here. That is what I mean.
Interviewer: Mr. Prime Minister, I want to move quickly to the Iranian issue in fact.
PM Netanyahu: You move very quickly. You just asked a huge question. But it’s alright, it’s your interview.
Interviewer: The Iranian issue. Now, a CIA source in fact said that you are planning, or you were planning if you like, to launch an attack against Iran in September to pre-empt the Palestinian bid of statehood? Can you answer to that?
PM Netanyahu: Yeah, well, I read this in the press. I mean, it’s preposterous, but you know, they keep...
Interviewer: Do you deny it?
PM Netanyahu: I don’t even confirm it because there’s nothing to deny and nothing to confirm. It’s not a real issue. The point is we don’t want to attack anyone and we don’t threaten anyone. Iran threatens to annihilate us, Iran sends terrorists and rockets into our cities.
Interviewer: But, Prime Minister, in fact you were quoted as saying that sanctions on their own won’t make any effect on the Iranians vis-ŕ-vis their nuclear program, but they have to be attached with a military threat. Did you say that?
PM Netanyahu: Yes. I said that a military option has to be joined to the economic sanctions if the sanctions are to work. There’s a paradox. If you don’t have a military option, the sanctions will probably fail, and you’ll probably have to use the military option whereas if you have it together, I think that that will work on Iran, and in fact, the only time that Iran stopped its nuclear program, the only time, was in 2003 when they briefly believed that the United States would take military action against them.
Interviewer: Is this one of the reasons why the Chief of Staff of the American forces is in this country on several visits?
PM Netanyahu: No, they come regularly anyway, but he came as part…
Interviewer: For coordination or for deterrence?
PM Netanyahu: No. Actually, I had a very nice conversation with him today and he gave me his view of what is happening in the entire region. I must tell you that this assumption is wrong, it’s just wrong. This wasn’t a subject of discussion.
Interviewer: Do you think that peace can be achieved between the Palestinians and the Israelis within what’s remained of the lifetime of the present Knesset?
PM Netanyahu: It can be achieved if we start right away. I don’t know how long the negotiations will take, but I know that the sooner we begin, the faster they’ll end. And I think the people of Israel and the Palestinian people, even though a lot of people are skeptical on will there be peace, but what they really expect is the leaders to put aside pre-conditions, to sit down openly, but if necessary, also with emissaries, and get on with the job of giving a future of peace for us and for you.
Interviewer: Can I, Mr. Prime Minister, just go back quickly and please briefly, go back to the nuclear issue. What about the Israeli nuclear program? Why don’t you talk about it?
PM Netanyahu: Well, without getting into the assumptions built into your question about our purported capabilities, I will say this: Israel is not threatening any country in the Middle East with annihilation. Israel is not seeking to openly declare about its intention to wipe away a sovereign country. Iran says that they will wipe us off the face of the earth. Iran threatens not only Israel. It threatens the Gulf States, it threatens Saudi Arabia, it threatens everyone.
Interviewer: Why don’t you declare what you have then? Whatever capabilities?
PM Netanyahu: Well, we like to hope that the Middle East will not have these unstable regimes with weapons of mass destruction that would threaten everybody, not only Israel, but all the Arab world and all the Arab governments.
Interviewer: Finally, I know, Prime Minister, that you know a bit of Arabic. Would you like to say anything in Arabic?
PM Netanyahu: Sure. First of all, Ramadan Karim (happy Ramadan).
Interviewer: Thank you.
PM Netanyahu: And Kul Aam wa-antum bi-khair (happy holidays).
Interviewer: Thank you.
PM Netanyahu: It’s a good time.
Interviewer: Thank you.