Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat down for an in-depth interview with CNN reporter Erin Burnett, airing last night as part of the network’s “OutFront” series. The exchange, which took place in the PM’s private garden, tackled expected subjects like Iran, American foreign policy and the opposing arguments over a two-state solution in the Middle East.
At the heart of the discussion however, the leader affectionately known as Bibi came off mostly as an ambassador for his country. He called Israelis “tremendously creative” and “wild entrepreneurs,” pointing out that the Jewish state has more Nobel Peace Prize winners per capita than any other country. At one point, he let Burnett know that the cell phone in her purse was likely fitted with at least four or five apps developed in Israel.
But the leader deemed “The Hawk,” who has built a political career fostered by hard lines and a strongly militarized government, stayed true to his nature in discussing what he regards his most immediate responsibility: protection of his people, no matter how vocally those outside the fold may protest.
That dogma was probably most evident when Burnett asked Netanyahu how he could be sure Iran was developing a nuclear weapon for offensive attack. The PM responded succinctly, “We know.”
Iranian Nuclear Program
In typical line with Netanyahu’s dialogue over the last few months, the PM held firm on the belief that sanctions are not likely to prevent Iran’s acquiring a nuclear weapon. While Bibi admitted the restrictions, particularly those on oil, have hurt the Islamic Republic economically, he argued the sanctions have not deterred it developmentally. Netanyahu attributed that fact to the ambition fueling the Iranian regime, saying it is not spurred on by want of economic or governmental gain, but by theologic motivation.
“Unlike, say, the Soviets, they can put their ideology before their survival,” he said. “So I don't think you can bet on their rationality.”
The Prime Minister drew on the allusion of the Soviet atomic bomb project to highlight a common claim in mainstream media and, in some cases, foreign governments. Several groups have put forward the opinion that though Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may take steps to develop a nuclear bomb, that doesn’t mandate he would use it, as was the case with the former Soviet Union.
Netanyahu rebuffed such thinking, however, saying pointedly that when someone publicly announces they plan to “annihilate you," the claim should be taken seriously. He also noted that Iranian money has been used to attack Israel for years now, illustrating that not all of the government’s threats have been merely rhetorical.
“Iran is giving its terror proxies, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the most advanced lethal weapons. Whatever weapons they have they give them,” he said. “And they're firing now 10,000, 12,000 of their rockets on Israel's cities.”
The prime minister laid out a suite of three goals he would like to see Iran live up to, though he had little faith that it would do so willingly. First, Iran should stop all uranium enrichment, which is reportedly up to 20 percent in some of Iran’s main facilities. Some bodies, like the United Nations, have suggested a decrease in enrichment levels to three percent, which would fall under the 3.5 percent minimum needed for nuclear activity.
It’s a figure that, however small, Netanyahu seemed loath to accept. The PM also stated all currently enriched uranium should be removed from developmental sites and called for the closing of the underground bunker at Qom, arguably Iran’s largest nuclear facility. He added that Israel’s ability to protect itself should be a key component of the global policy to minimize Iran’s threat, a shot at growing criticisms over Israel’s military strategy.
“Think of what they'd do with nuclear weapons. I don't think you want to bet peace in the Middle East and the security of the world on Iran's rational behavior,” he said. “I think it's a much safer bet to do what I and President Obama and others have said. Prevent Iran from acquiring atomic bombs.”
Netanyahu’s reference to a shared understanding between himself and US President Barack Obama came up several times in the interview, though the pair’s relationship has often been the subject of scrutiny. While the issue of sanctions over strikes has been a point of contention between Israel and the US, Bibi maintained a united front with the American leader, refusing to buy into recent reports that his government would prefer to see a President Mitt Romney come November.
“I respect Mitt Romney as I respect Barack Obama, the president of the United States. And that's the end of the ranking and the questions that you will undoubtedly try again and again to draw me into,” he said, laughing. “I have enough politics here [in Israel] than to get into American politics.”
Though the PM certainly has plenty on his hands, he did take a moment to speak to the Israeli connection with American Jewry. In Peter Beinart’s new book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” the writer controversially illustrated a weakening in the connection young American Jews feel with Israel. It’s a correlation Beinart argues would prove a dangerous threat to the continuation of Zionism, considering 40 percent of the Jewish population makes its home in the states. Netanyahu, however, was quick to dismiss the idea.
“I think there's a much stronger bond than meets the eye. There’s a very strong bond that we can encourage and develop, especially by having young Jews from the United States and Jews from around the world come here,” he said. “I think ultimately the future of the Jewish people is intimately bound with the future of the Jewish state. And my job as the prime minister is to ensure that future.”
Palestinian Peace Process
Though much of the discussion was tied up in the Iranian threat, the issue of Palestine, a problem for Israel that persisted long before the Islamic Republic, was also at the center of conversation. In fact, one of Netanyahu’s most polemic platforms, demilitarization of a proposed Palestinian state, seemed to be the one issue that Burnett couldn’t reconcile.
“Demilitarized is a real state. It just means that they can't field the armies. They can't fire rockets,” Netanyahu said. “We want to make sure that if we have a peace arrangement, we walk away from certain areas, that they won't be used a third time by Iran and its Palestinian proxies to fire rockets on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”
The issue of statehood was revisited as recently as this month, when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wrote to Netanyahu with a list of conditions for restarting peace talks, which stalled in 2010. Bibi, who has consistently balked at demands for preconditions, stated publicly he would respond with a letter of his own, expected for delivery as early as next week.
Though much of the discussion between officials has been wrapped in rhetoric, Netanyahu told Burnett he believes a two-state solution is possible. She asked what a Palestinian state would look like, alluding to commentary that any developed PA nation would amount to a system of segregated island blocs. The PM pointed out he has already removed 400 checkpoints in an effort to create an eventual congruous land for the Palestinians.
He added, however, that any advancement toward that goal required a willing negotiating partner on the other side, a common argument from Knesset members.
“I think that I could deliver a peace agreement," Netanyahu said. "I could get the Israeli people to follow me if I believe that I have a serious partner on the other side willing to make the necessary compromises on the Palestinian side."