C3. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Interview on Operation Protective Edge, Jerusalem, 24 September 2014
Just shy of a month after Israel and the Palestinians agreed to the open-ended cease-fire that ended Israel’s assault on Gaza, Israel Hayom conducted an interview with Prime Minister Netanyahu that was published on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. A free daily, Israel Hayom enjoys the largest newspaper circulation in Israel, and it has long been regarded as an ally of the prime minister. In this right-wing forum, Netanyahu spoke on a variety of subjects from a perspective rarely heard in his speeches to the UN General Assembly or to American Jewish groups. Topics in the wide-ranging interview include Operation Protective Edge, the ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians in the aftermath of the Gaza attack, and regional developments in the previous year.
Excerpts of the interview are presented below and a full transcript, including sections on Iran and internal Israeli politics, is available atwww.israelhayom.com.
Mr. Prime Minister, today is the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Is Israel doing better or worse than it did on the eve of Rosh Hashanah last year?
We are doing better while facing a harsher reality. The reality around us is that radical Islam is marching forward on all fronts. This reality poses a challenge for us, as well as for the rest of the world. One of my duties as prime minister is making sure the world understands that our war against these Islamic organizations and states, as well as against the Islamic Republic of Iran, is their war as well.
We are actually doing better now because on one of those fronts Hamas has received a debilitating blow, the likes of which it hasn’t received since it seized control of the Gaza Strip. We targeted each of Hamas’ capabilities and we set it back years—its rocket stockpiles, by killing 1,000 terrorists, destroying terror tunnels, demolishing terror towers, and crippling infrastructures Hamas spent years building.
I believe we achieved the operation’s objective, meaning achieving lasting peace and quiet by re-establishing deterrence via dealing [Hamas] a massive blow. What happens if they try again? They will be dealt a doubly debilitating blow—and they know it.
[An indication to that effect] was when one rocket was fired [after a truce was called] and they acted swiftly, before we even had a chance to execute our response. We were set to mount a forceful response over that one lone rocket, but [Hamas] rushed to explain that they were against rocket fire, saying the perpetrators were arrested and that they had no knowledge of their plans, and adding that they were ensuring order would be enforced.
The message was received, but the keeper of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. We are ready for action at any time. The difference is that now, the balance [of power] has changed.
Why didn’t we vanquish Hamas?
The answer to that question is very complex and it entails a variety of considerations. One of those considerations is a spatial consideration, which cannot be ignored. We have Hamas in the south, al-Qaida and the Nusra Front in the Golan Heights, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Islamic State in the east; and above all we have Iran, which has not abandoned neither its support of some of these terrorist groups, nor its plans to acquire nuclear weapons.
I have decided that the best way to tackle these problems is to seriously undermine Hamas in Gaza, but refrain from getting dragged in there. Otherwise, we would have found ourselves fighting not a 50-day war, but a 500-day one, and the heavy toll would have included more than human lives, but other areas as well. We would have had to face the question of what to do with the seized territory; there would have been an international price to pay—and all of that wouldn’t have yielded a much better result.
I think the difference between a good commander and a bad commander, is that a good commander knows how to achieve the declared goals for a lesser price. We would have ended up with the same result, only with a much heavier price, and I don’t want to elaborate further.
Surely, Mr. Prime Minister, you are aware of the fact that at least some of the public does not see it that way. There is a sense of disappointment.
That’s because the public isn’t privy to the overall considerations. Some of the public would have preferred we act hastily, but I get the impression that it’s only a small percentage.
The majority of the public, according to my brief and casual survey—we’re talking about people who were at the beach, people from all over Israel, who were not invited there or screened, and with whom I spoke directly—mostly what I heard from them were praises about the responsible manner in which we are leading the country and statements of appreciation.
No one thinks Israel was soft [on Hamas]. No one in their right mind thinks that. Statements to that effect may have been made in the beginning, but as the campaign unfolded and people saw the force of the blow dealt to the terror organizations, they understood it was a very serious blow.
What we did to Hamas, which is twice as strong as Islamic State, Israel did that by itself—not as part of a 38-nation coalition. Israel used tremendous firepower. Naturally, we never sought to put any civilian in harm’s way. We targeted only terrorists.
How influential were the military and the chief of staff in preventing a wider ground operation?
Nothing was prevented. We used combined judgment—mine, the defense minister’s and the chief of staff’s, and eventually that of the cabinet members. I won’t comment on cabinet meetings, but I can say that within the cabinet there was, most of the time and when it came time to decide, unanimity about the nature of operations.
[Operation Protective Edge] was executed according to an outline and objectives I had set. The first order of business was targeting the terror tunnels in the south. That was a massive aerial strike. Then came preparing international public opinion, via conversations I had with prominent leaders: [U.S. President Barack] Obama, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, [French President Francois] Hollande, [British Premier David] Cameron, [Canadian Prime Minister Stephen] Harper, and others.
I made it clear to them that unless a cease-fire was struck we would have to launch a ground operation against the tunnels—something that was not acceptable at the time. I also made it clear to them that if a cease-fire was declared, the first thing we would discuss would be neutralizing the tunnels; and that if the other side didn’t accept a cease-fire, or if it falters—and I had serious reservations, to say the least, about both options—then I had decided we would launch an operation to neutralize the tunnels.
When we had completed uncovering the tunnels, I made the decision to pull the military out of [enemy] fire range, because I thought it was pointless to leave the soldiers there, and that the right thing to do was to resume the aerial strikes. The thing that guided me, and proved right, was that at the end of the day, the [aerial] campaign would trump [Hamas’] attrition, because our firepower is greater than theirs. That’s also what happened—they agreed to our demand for a cease-fire.
With the negotiations resuming in Cairo, both Israel and Hamas have their demands. What is your red line?
First of all, these talks are about security issues and it’s not a diplomatic negotiation. I made sure that the [Israeli] delegation was comprised purely of defense officials, and I didn’t task my diplomatic envoy attorney Isaac Molcho or any of the ministers to join it.
The goal is to make it clear that we are focused solely on two issues: ensuring our security interests, as well as the ability to send humanitarian aid and supplies that would assist in rebuilding the ruins, in favor of Gaza’s population. Naturally, we have demands of our own, and we have the necessary tenacity to reject any demands the other side might make that we find unacceptable. We have been doing so successfully.
New ideas filtering through
Is the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip one of the objectives?
Of course. It remains an objective. Will this objective be agreed upon and achieved soon? I find that hard to believe. But I’m versed in introducing ideas and objectives that gradually permeate into the international arena. For example, at the time I spoke about overcoming airplane hijackings by targeting terror states rather than the terror groups; or when I introduced the concept of imposing sanctions on Iran. There are other examples: when I spoke about free Israeli economy, and even in the internal discourse I led about dealing with Hamas’ terror tunnels.
I have always encountered criticism and skepticism, but at the end of the day, these ideas filter through. I believe in them because it is part of our struggle. This is more than a military and economic struggle, this is a diplomatic struggle and one for public opinion, and it’s going to be a long struggle.
This is how I expect it to be in my coming visit to the U.N. General Assembly. I intend to speak about the threats posed by radical Islam. Naturally, the biggest threat is that such states and organizations would obtain nuclear weapons.
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A culture of freedom
The state budget has created tension between the parties. What direction is the budget heading in? On the one hand, we have been hearing social statements, and on the other hand, we need to reinforce Israel’s security.
These are two elements that need to be combined in the correct proportions. We need to increase the defense budget and we need to exercise economic responsibility. I think we have come a certain part of the way, but we have yet to complete it. We have some time—not a lot of time, but some. At the end of the day, the differences are about money.
The defense establishment asked for an additional 11 billion shekels [$3 billion], and it looks like it will get about half of it. Where do you stand on the issue?
The defense establishment can ask for NIS 40 billion [$11 billion]. Security needs are like health needs in that sense—endless, and rightfully so, because the scope of the threats we face mandates a substantial defense budget. Nevertheless there are limitations as to how far the budgets and how far the Israeli economy can stretch.
You need a robust economy to fund defense and security and you need security to safeguard the economy. The former is clear to everyone, because if you don’t have a robust economy you can’t fund security. But without security—you have no economy.”
The need to decide between Israel’s security needs and its economic needs applies to every topic. For example, a year and a half ago, after Operation Pillar of Defense, I made the significant decision to acquire a great deal of Iron Dome interceptor missiles. This decision cost money but it made a crucial contribution to security.”
That is true, but it created a situation where the discourse focused solely on defense and security.
If the discourse was focused solely on security we wouldn’t be debating between these needs. I was delighted when the international credit ratings agency S&P affirmed Israel’s A+ rating, which we earned three years ago as a result of our responsible fiscal policies.
I think it is clear that Israel’s economy is solid and that it’s properly managed, especially after the major reforms I led between 2003 and 2005. We exercise responsible practices. It’s important for the economy, but it’s also important for health, welfare, education and of course, security.
It’s important to remember that our defense needs have grown not because reality is about to change, but because it already has. There are multiple theaters and the weapons are changing. Terrorist organizations are hiding among civilian population, and this requires defenses the likes of Iron Dome, alongside offensive weapons and sophisticated use of intelligence. All of this is very expensive.
The reality of the Middle East increases Israel’s defense expenditures. Our current deployments are more expensive than dealing with conventional armies.
Could it be that here, in the new situation that has emerged, the conflict with the U.S. has turned from legitimate disagreements into a crack in the relationship?
No, I think the relationship between Israel and the United States is based on solid foundations, and at the end of the day, large parts of the American public feel a deep affiliation with Israel. The difference is like night and day compared to the situation in Western Europe. That stems from historical, political, cultural and many other reasons.
There is a deep bond between Israel and the U.S. and every administration subscribes to that. It is a deep connection. Only recently the Senate passed a resolution declaring Israel a major strategic partner, and Congress appropriated $235 million of [defense] aid. These are the markings of a very deep bond.
Historically speaking, the Kingdom of Israel was relatively short-lived. Israel’s enemies have compared Israel to the crusaders, who were eventually banished. What can we do differently this time?
Herzl was once asked—if a Jewish state were to be established, how long would it survive? His answer was, it will survive for as long as Western culture, the culture of freedom, survives.
Simultaneously, we must also strive to forge new alliances. Every country needs allies. Even the largest powers need allies, let alone a county like Israel. Close and distant allies alike. We are developing new allies. We want to preserve our traditional alliance with the U.S., which is also evolving and where we need to approach new sectors. For this reason I have been visiting not just the U.S. but also China, Japan and other places. We are active in the global arena and we’ve dispatched envoys to Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe.
You have to remember, no one will strike an alliance with you if you’re weak, which is why we have to cultivate our power. At the end of the day, we have to be able to defend ourselves by ourselves against direct threats. These insights regarding spatial perspective, and the ability to create coalitions for common goals and interests, are the essence of policy: creating momentum.
Simultaneously, we have to cultivate our ability to defend ourselves, and that’s my responsibility. That’s my true vision—not a vision of ‘let’s jump off a cliff, call it taking initiative, and fall into an abyss,’ as was the case with anyone who has ever made such suggestions based on a complete disconnect from reality.
What does your plan for a regional horizon entail?
We’re talking about cementing and advancing Israel’s power. The changes leading Arab nations have undergone have led them to view Israel not as their traditional enemy, but as a partner against three radical Islamist threats: the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, al-Qaida and its offshoots, the likes of Islamic State and the Nusra Front, and the radical Shiites, who are sponsored by Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah.
Can this realization translate into a more open relationship that further promotes a responsible, sober and safe diplomatic process? Only time will tell. It’s worth exploring.
What you are essentially saying is that a new trio has been formed, Saudi Arabia-Egypt-Israel?
That’s taking things a bit far; but a word to the wise, you saw exactly how various nations reacted when we mounted a forceful response against Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
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