Bibi Netanyahu was in London this month after meeting Angela Merkel, Emanuel Macron and Theresa May, the leaders of the three European countries which had committed most to President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Before he flew back to Israel he came to a crowded public meeting at Policy Exchange, whose director, Dean Godson, had asked me to talk with him. I asked him first what he had told the Europeans, who had reacted badly to President Trump’s unilateral action on Iran.
‘Well I’ll tell you what I didn’t tell them. I didn’t tell them to pull out of the Iran agreement – because I think it’s effectively defunct. The minute the United States decided to pull out of this very bad agreement … the weight of the American economy forced the issue. If any company has to choose whether to do business with Iran or with the United States, that’s a no-brainer. Companies are pulling out of Iran now and it’s a good thing because if we have learned anything it’s to stop aggressive tyrannical regimes early on.’
Netanyahu said he had always thought the deal flawed because it massively rewarded Iran for agreeing only to delay its progress to nuclear weapons. It was ‘a cash machine’ which lifted sanctions against Iran, extended its credit and gave its theocratic leaders ‘billions and billions of dollars’, which they were supposed to invest in Iran but instead used ‘to fuel their dreams of empire and conquest throughout the Middle East, in Yemen and Syria and elsewhere.’
Unlike the Europeans, Israel’s self-confident leader believes that ‘the deal was bad any way you looked at it’, but now President Trump had slammed the cash machine shut.
‘And so my real focus in this visit was not about the Iran deal. My real focus was about reversing Iran’s aggression in the region, mainly getting them out of Syria, all of Syria. That’s what I spoke about and I have to say that I found considerable agreement on that.’
I thought that a tall order, given Iran’s massive military commitment in Syria, supported by Moscow, and asked him how it could actually happen.
‘First of all ask them, demand it. We, Israel, are not going to let Iran entrench themselves in Syria in order to achieve their declared goal of destroying Israel.
‘If we’ve learned anything from history, including British history, you don’t accommodate an aggressive regime that is taking territory and building up armaments with a view of conquering you. You take action against them early on. Bad things should be opposed at their beginning, not after they become horrendously dangerous.’
‘This opposition to Iran’s aggression throughout the Middle East is shared by us and just about all the Arab states. When Arabs and Israelis agree on something, it’s worth paying attention.’
I said that equally worth noting is Russia’s muted response to Israel’s attacks on their Syrian and Iranian allies. ‘They seem recently to have been the dog that didn’t bark?’
‘I can’t possibly refer to our international colleagues in those terms, he replied, ‘but I will say that I spoke to Mr Putin several times in the last three years. And I said look, we have a legitimate right to defend ourselves against the Iranian regime that seeks to obliterate us. But we don’t want to clash with you.
‘So let’s make sure we don’t bump into each other or shoot each other’s planes from the skies. We agreed and I’m glad to say … we’ve not had any clashes. I think Mr Putin understands that Israel is doing what any country would do faced with a foe that is out to destroy it.’
I turned the conversation to the horrific situation in Gaza. On May 14, the day that the US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the dictatorial rulers of Gaza, the terrorist organisation Hamas, encouraged or ordered 40,000 protestors to the Gaza side of the fence with Israel. Some 62 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army that day. There was an international outcry against Israel.
Hamas had discovered a brilliant way of damaging Israel in the eyes of the world. I asked why the IDF, one of the most sophisticated and well-trained armies in the world had not developed a non-lethal method of crowd control?
‘Well you raise two points here. One is what actually happened and second how it’s perceived. It’s very hard to avoid the false perception that this was a peaceful protest. We all agree with non-violent protests. But that’s not what Hamas is organising. They’re organising a violent assault into Israel with the view of destroying us by breaking through the border fence, to kidnap and murder Israelis that are 100 metres away in communities that align the fence and so on.
‘They come with pipe bombs. They come with weapons. They come with explosives and they pretend that it’s a peaceful protest. Hamas pay some civilians to come but mostly it’s their own families.’ Hamas itself had confirmed that 50 of the 62 people killed were from Hamas. ‘They’re not peaceful protestors, they’re vicious Hamas terrorists.’
I repeated my question. ‘Why can’t you devise a better, non-lethal way of dealing with unpeaceful protestors?’
‘I have asked the same question. I said to our technological people, you have performed wonders. You’ve developed a bullet to hit a bullet, that’s our anti-missile technology. You’ve developed for the first time in history an ability to discover tunnels underground. You know, people have been working on that one since the time of the Babylonians. Can you not find a way to stop this kind of tactic with non-lethal means? Because we tried water cannons, we tried tear gas, we tried all sorts of other devices and none of those worked against this kind of tactic. So they’re working on it and you know given our record we probably will figure out something but we haven’t gotten it yet.’
This answer did not satisfy Michael Howard, the former conservative leader, who asked emphatically why the IDF did not use rubber bullets against the protestors in Gaza, or shoot them in the legs. ‘Why did you have to kill them to stop them scaling the fence?’ To which Mr Netanyahu replied that all other tactics had been tried and failed. And there was another dimension. Israel, he said, wanted to minimise casualties, whereas Hamas ‘at a certain point said not enough people have been killed, push more, let the Jews kill more.’ In other words, the more Palestinian casualties, the better the propaganda for Hamas and the worse the international outcry against Israel.
I asked him whether the prospects of a settlement of the Palestinian issue were improved by the recent, extraordinary rapprochement between Israel and the Sunni Arab states.
‘I think the possibility of gradually normalising relations is before us. Why? The first reason is Iran. The second reason is Iran. The third reason is Iran.
‘Since the nuclear deal, Iran has moved to try to colonise Iraq and they now want to bring their army 1000 miles from Iran into in order to destroy Israel from Syria.
‘They also have a similar arrangement in Yemen and they’re firing rockets at Riyadh, 700 kilometres away. Iran is on a campaign of conquest following the nuclear deal. They’re destroying one nation after another, with the money given to them by the deal.
‘Just about every Arab country agrees with me on that. They understand that Iran ultimately wants to conquer all of them and that they are in great peril. They look around them and ask, Who is our partner against this madness? And they reply, Israel.
‘And the second reason why our relations are changing is that the Arab world wants civilian technology for clean water, clear air etc, and they know that Israel is a technological powerhouse. I think these factors are creating the possibility of changing the equation. People used to say if we have peace with the Palestinians, we will have peace with the rest of the Arab world. It might be that it’s the other way around.’
Netanyahu has often seemed equivocal about the famous but always elusive “two state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian neighbourhood.
‘I haven’t changed my view and it can be summed up in a very simple way, the Palestinians should have all the powers to govern themselves and none of the powers to threaten us.
‘In 2005 we got out of Gaza. And in about five seconds Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which is beholden to Iran, took it over, now they’re firing rockets into Tel Aviv, Beersheba, any part of Israel. We got out of Lebanon and within five minutes, Hezbollah, which means Iran, took southern Lebanon and fired thousands of rockets into Israel.
‘So we can’t do the same thing in the West Bank, which is 20 times the size of Gaza – we’d simply not survive. So the Palestinians should have their independence, their governance, I don’t care about that, but in the tiny area from the Jordan river to the sea the overriding security power must remain with Israel.
‘And if that brings me bad editorials in an unnamed British newspaper, I don’t care. I take care of the survival of the state of Israel and I will say that the survival of the state of Israel is also necessary for the survival or the possibility of peace in the Middle East.’
Finally, or almost, I asked him how dealing with President Trump differed from dealing with President Obama.
He said that he had had agreements and disagreements with President Obama. ‘The main disagreement was on the question of Iran and I was quite forthright about it. I thought the deal put the very survival of our country at risk, so obviously I opposed it.
‘There’s no disagreement between President Trump and me on Iran.’
Or on much else.
‘I appreciate that very much, as I appreciate his decision, which I think is historic, to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US embassy there. I think this is very important historically. I think you look at the milestones of the 20th century towards today, it began with the Balfour Declaration 101 years ago in this city… And it was followed by President Truman’s recognition of the Jewish state minutes after the partition resolution was approved in the UN – and I think this will stand in time among these historic decisions.’
The full transcript of this interview is on the Policy Exchange website.