Aluf Benn, Editor in Chief of Haaretz newspaper spoke to Fathom Editor Alan Johnson about the politics and the personality of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Part 1: Making the deal with the Palestinians
Alan Johnson: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister faces a dangerous and complicated conjuncture: stasis in the peace talks, a retreating America, a looming Iranian nuclear threat plus a successful Iranian charm offensive, the awful regional turmoil, and a Likud that seems to be drifting away from him. Let’s start with the Palestinians. On 18 November 2009 Netanyahu called you and said ‘I want to advance a peace agreement with the Palestinians. I am capable of achieving an agreement. I have the political will inside me.’ You wrote, ‘I believe him’. One week later Netanyahu announced the settlement moratorium. However, we are four years on and peace has not been achieved. And many no longer believe in Netanyahu’s political will, especially commentators in Europe. Does Bibi want to advance a peace agreement? Why hasn’t it happened yet?
Aluf Benn: Well, it hasn’t happened because the circumstances were not ripe. There was not enough pressure on either side to change any of their fundamental positions or to reach any compromise. The status quo was, and still is, very convenient to both Netanyahu and the Palestinian leadership. That’s the main thing.
There was no domestic pressure on the government to do anything on the Palestinian track because, until recently, the terror front was quiet on the West Bank. (With Gaza we’re dealing with a Hamas government that is not involved in the Peace Process. A peace process with the West Bank Palestinian government will not change anything in Gaza in the short term, so I separate Gaza from this equation.) As long as the West Bank and Israeli streets were quiet and as long as Israel was not facing strong international demands – particularly American demands – to do anything on the Palestinian track there was no incentive and no pressure on the government to do anything.
In 2013 talks were resumed at a very modest price of releasing 104 veteran terrorists from Israeli prisons. But neither side has made any serious decision to change anything in their long standing positions. In other words it’s at a standstill. The interesting part is this, the deadline of the Kerry round of talks will happen before the deadline of the six month interim deal with Iran. In the past the main incentive for Netanyahu to make a deal with the Palestinians – or to give a grand gesture to the Palestinians in the West Bank – would have been an American effort to stop Iran by force, or by other means that would have shown serious effort and success in stopping a nuclear Iran. Netanyahu believes that the deal the P5+1 has struck with Iran is bad, a ‘historic mistake’, so there is no incentive for him. If the real danger to Israel’s security is Iran, and Israel is now asked to sit tight and take the risk of Iran abusing the deal to get closer to the bomb, or even get the bomb itself, then how can Israel be expected to take a further risk by letting go of the strategic terrain in the West Bank? That’s the ‘linkage’ Netanyahu sees.
The dilemma for the Americans is, following their own perceived success in Syria and now Iran, should they try to force a deal between Israel and the Palestinians? Or should they say, ‘Ok, we disappointed Netanyahu on Iran, so we cannot stretch our alliance with Israel further. We must leave the Palestinian issue and put it on the back burner for an additional period and hope that there will be no crisis, no intifada, nothing that would force us to intervene again’? John Kerry appears to favour the former approach. The more concrete dilemma for Kerry and Obama is whether to put forward a map of a future Palestinian state, then ask Israel and the Palestinians to take it or leave it, or face the consequences.
AJ: Do you think America will now put forward bridging proposals?
I don’t know. I think a lot depends on developments in the Israeli-American relationship following the Geneva deal. The gut reaction of Netanyahu to the Geneva deal was to toughen his stance vis-à-vis the Palestinians. ‘You didn’t give me what I wanted on Iran. Forget about the Palestinian state.’ He started talking about Palestinian incitement and the Palestinian youth imitating Nazis. That rang hollow; to argue that Abu Mazen is a Nazi or that he is a crazy anti-Israeli figure like Ahmadinejad. It’s really for the diehard hasbara people.
Look, this is a great opportunity for Netanyahu. He enjoys ultimate political power to make the deal; more so than in 2009, because even if the right wing members of his coalition defect or try to cause trouble he has an alternative coalition sitting there, just waiting to get in. With the election of Isaac ‘Buji’ Herzog as the new Labour leader his position is even stronger. Buji is foreign policy and security minded, so he would love to be the guy who brought Netanyahu the deal in the way that Shimon Peres allowed Begin to get the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 through the Knesset. So Netanyahu has the opportunity.
What can he gain out of it? If he is serious about his new alliance with the Saudis, the Gulf states, General Sisi’s Egypt and Jordan, and if he wants to be a senior member in that alliance, the price of admission – or the price of taking it out of the closet into a more open alliance – is a deal with the Palestinians or a serious step towards such a deal.
And there is a legacy issue. Netanyahu has been elected and re-elected promising to stop the nuclear program in Iran. So far he has failed. And if the Geneva deal makes any Israeli action irrelevant then what is going to be his legacy?
AJ: Let me ask a question about Netanyahu’s stance vis-à-vis the Palestinians. A lot of Europeans are confused by the fact that on the one hand Netanyahu has started to talk about the risk of a bi-national state while, on the other, his government continues to oversee settlement construction, including in some of the most sensitive areas. How do you explain this?
AB: Well, at best it’s ambiguous. Netanyahu is not one of the religious supporters of settlements who see them as a divine mission. He is more concerned with security, foreign policy, the balance of power and economics. At the same time, the government has a very strong right wing component that is keen on building settlements, for the sake of settling, and keen on publicising that for the sake of undermining the talks, which they hate. So for Netanyahu, ambiguity is good politics. When you read what Netanyahu has been saying about the Palestinian issue, it is mostly about Israel’s need to keep a security presence in the Jordan Valley. He is still shy and reluctant to put forward a map – or the perimeters of a map – and his maximum position falls short of the minimum acceptable to the Palestinians.
Where I find Netanyahu interesting is that he has shown zero interest in Arabic culture. Not just the Palestinians, but the Middle East at large. His entire cultural background is American. More recently he quoted from Iranian thinkers but you never see him interested in the wider Middle East culture that Israel lives in.
AJ: You wrote at one point about his visits to Israeli Arab towns and villages being limited, shall we say?
AB: Yes. I traced back all of Netanyahu’s public visits in the previous term and the one place he visited the most was the fence built along the Egyptian border to stop illegal immigration and terrorism from Sinai. He visited towns and townships where the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu mayors were the leaders, or wanted to lead these towns and obviously Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He almost never visited an Arab town. He visited settlements only in the settlement blocks, visiting Ariel, Gush Etzion and Maaleh Adumim. When he crossed that imaginary line to the more isolated settlements it was only for two events. One, for the murder of the Fogel family in Itamar, to pay his respects; so it was Shiva not a political statement. The other was when he visited the settlements before the election, but that was as a Likud party visitor, so it was not publicised by the Prime Minister’s Office. He never once visited an ultra-orthodox town, or an ultra-orthodox Yeshiva. Never even once.
In other words, Netanyahu’s vision of Israel is limited to where he feels comfortable. He tends not to see Israel as a state within a Middle Eastern community. I think this is a stumbling block. Now, I’m not arguing that his Arab counterparts are behaving differently; it’s not as if the Gulfis are all about listening to Israeli music and watching Israeli TV series and so on. But it’s a major gap.
Netanyahu has made two interesting statements. Number one was the bi-national state warning. That was a main stay of the left for many years. Several of Netanyahu’s cronies on the right were those who came forward with the idea that there are fewer Palestinians than we think, and that the demographic threat is at best inflated. But Netanyahu has stopped using that theme recently. Number two was his invitation to Abu Mazen to speak at the Knesset and his proposal that he speak at the Palestinian Parliament in Ramallah. Most people saw that as an empty gesture, but then again, no one from the other side ever put Netanyahu to the test: ‘Ok, I’m willing to come to the Knesset. Are you free next week?’
AJ: Some people say Netanyahu is now the dove inside the Likud because the old party of Meridor and Begin is gone and isn’t coming back. They say there is a new Likud emerging which is bitterly opposed to a Palestinian state and Bibi is relatively isolated within it. Is that picture accurate?
AB: No. I think the main division line in the Likud is not the Palestinian issue. It is liberalism, civil rights and human rights within Israel, the role of the Supreme Court, and so on. Benny Begin was not a fan of the Palestinian state. He was not an iota less of a hawk than Moshe ‘Boogie’ Yaalon. Many people on the right feel that liberalism in Israel has gone too far and that the Supreme Court and the media are controlled by a bunch of leftists who impose their will on the entire country while the majority of the public supports a different approach. This has long been the argument of conservatives in America. The rank and file in the Likud faction of the Knesset are very right wing in that context and that’s why they kicked out Begin and Meridor and isolated Reuven Rivlin who was almost kicked out as well. Netanyahu appears to have been dragged by the right-wingers in the Likud towards a more aggressive domestic policy and this is more important to them than the Palestinian issue now.
Obviously many of them are very hawkish on the Palestinian issue as well. But Netanyahu is not totally isolated there. And he has a lot of support elsewhere; the Lapid party, Tzipi Livni, Labour and, I think, an Arieh Deri-led Shas, which is more centrist on war and peace issues than it was under Eli Yishai.
Most importantly, Netanyahu has public support [to make the deal]. I don’t recall in my lifetime an Israeli leader who enjoyed such a monopoly on public opinion and foreign policy. Netanyahu is not loved by the people; he’s a distant person, I don’t think he’s got many friends, if any, and people don’t like the way he lives, and so on. Having said all that, when you ask people, ‘Who can be the Prime Minister?’ the answer is Netanyahu and the umpteen dwarfs. Therefore, any deal that Netanyahu would put forward would win enormous public support. At that point, yes, the problem becomes the Likud.
Part 2: Dealing with a retreating America
AJ: A relatively new element of the situation is a retreating America. You have written; ‘For all Obama’s limitations, Israel does not and will not have any other ally.’
AB: I haven’t seen any allies standing in line to replace America.
AJ: Indeed. Is the US in long term strategic retreat from the region?
AB: I’m not sure, because if America was in retreat why would it invest so much in the Iranian deal? It could have left the Middle Eastern powers to deal with Iran on their own. I don’t see the volunteers to replace America despite all the hoo-ha about Putin’s new Middle East initiative. I don’t see the Chinese getting into that quagmire. So I’m not sure about this idea of an American ‘retreat’.
I’m not judging intervention only on the numbers of soldiers, planes and drones. America has other means of intervening. What we see in the Middle East is a changing balance of power because of the Arab Spring revolutions, which took out Egypt and Syria – very strong regional powers for a long time in the Middle Eastern equation – and which put the Saudi, Gulf and Jordanian kingdoms under the cloud of uncertainty about their survival. So the logical thing for America is to reach out to Iran, rather than bet on the losers in the region. If we were judging it from a historic perspective without knowing the personalities involved, and analyse it as if it were the Middle Ages, it’s about the balance of power.
Part 3: Preventing an Iranian bomb
AJ: Let’s talk about Iran. Obviously we know the Prime Minister called the deal struck in Geneva is a ‘historic mistake’. Is that a view that you share?
AB: No, I don’t think so. I think the deal comes from the very strong reluctance on the part of Obama and American public opinion towards any further military involvement in the Middle East. The perceived failure of Iraq and Afghanistan was a bit too much for the American public to swallow. And the idea of going into a third war in Iran has been too much for them. So I think this is what lies at the heart of this deal. It’s not a game changer.
AJ: Isn’t that what makes it a bad deal? Wasn’t there too quick a rush towards the Iranian offer?
AB: No. Nobody was sure that the other option – which is to bomb Iran – would have made the Middle East a safer place. Netanyahu could have launched an attack but he didn’t. He spent a lot of energy and money and time on military preparations; there were endless consultations with politicians, military chiefs, the intelligence services and so on. But at the end of the day his decision was not to strike. I’m not saying, ‘Ok, if you don’t have the guts, don’t ask Obama to do it for you’. The capabilities of Israel and the United States in that respect are very different. But at the end of the day, even Netanyahu, when he made up his mind, decided that going to war was a bad option.
The idea of an American and Iranian deal has been in the air since 2009. Even if not all the details were known, the idea of a Nixon to China moment between America and Iran has been the air for almost five years. It’s not something that came out of the blue for Netanyahu. So the secondary argument was that a deal in itself was not bad, but an interim deal is bad, because an interim deal saves you from making hard choices upfront while leaving open issues that might get complicated further down the road.
From Netanyahu’s perspective the best possible outcome would be the collapse of the deal – with Iran to blame – but this is far from being assured. The main problem here is that Netanyahu must not risk Israel’s relations with the United States. You cannot turn the United States into Israel’s new adversary. We need America more than that, deal or no deal with Iran.
Will that deal make the world a safer place? It’s too early to tell. It will prevent war in the short term for sure, but is it going to be replaced by a permanent deal in the summer? Is it going to strengthen the moderates in Iran? These are the key questions. If the regime changes or changes from within and Rouhani becomes the Gorbachev of Iran, clearly that would be a much better outcome than any narrow nuclear deal would achieve.
AJ: What do you think about that image of Rouhani as a Gorbachev-like figure? Gorbachev made a basic judgement that the old way of running the Stalinist society was finished and nothing but radical fundamental reform was going to save it. He set out on that path. Is there any evidence that Rouhani thinks like that about Iran? Is he a genuine reformer in that regard?
AB: We don’t know. We didn’t know that about Gorbachev either. He was the ultimate apparatchik before that. So we don’t know. The circumstances were such that the Communist system collapsed from within and we don’t know if that’s the situation in Iran.
I think this is where Netanyahu missed the point. You can argue against the deal, you can argue that Iran has these nuclear ambitions, but to ignore the election result in Iran was a mistake. On the one hand he says Rouhani is a figure head, Khamenei is the real dictator and the real power broker in Iran. At the same time he says Rouhani is a trickster and is cheating the West. You have to make up your mind. I think that something fundamental is happening within Iran. Rouhani was not handpicked by the Supreme Leader; he was elected by the public and he was elected with the mission of bringing Iran closer to the West. If he achieves that goal it will make the Middle East a safer place. You cannot just count the number of uranium enriching machines or the kilograms of a certain level of enrichment. That is far less important than the ultimate direction of the country. Or, in other words, the collapse of the Soviet Union from within was far more important to global security than the arms control deals reached between Reagan and Gorbachev; which, by the way, were hated by the American hawks and they still hate Kissinger!
Part 4: Responding to regional turmoil
AJ: What have you made of Netanyahu’s diplomatic reaction to the ‘Arab Spring’? You wrote a column in Haaretz that was critical of Israel’s moral passivity in the face of the humanitarian costs of the descent of the Arab spring into sectarian civil war, Islamist violence, military coups, and refugee crisis and so on. You wrote: ‘Even if we didn’t want to activate the air force, we could at least open our border to Syrian refugees, beyond the trickle of seriously wounded already entering. We could lead an international effort to supply gas masks and atropine to Assad’s opponents. We could even publish the information Israeli intelligence has gathered about war crimes in Syria and expose the true face of the Butcher of Damascus to spur international action against him. But none of this has been done.’
AB: That piece was meant to criticise the eagerness of Israeli officials for an American attack in Syria. I was trying to argue that if you were really worried about the situation in Syria, Israel has (unlike Iran, which is far away and complicated and so on) a lot of means to intervene in Syria, but it wouldn’t.
Israel complained about the chemical weapons deal with Syria, but from an Israeli perspective it was a windfall. Disarming your enemy of the most threatening weapon in its arsenal, without any Israeli quid pro quo whatsoever, who would have dreamed it possible even a year ago? And after a while, quietly, the government said there’s no more need to procure gas masks for Israeli citizens after over 40 years. So that was the essence of what I was trying to say.
Regarding the Arab Spring, Netanyahu’s best achievement as a diplomat was to keep Israel out as we saw enormous changes across our border. The two main centres of the revolution, Egypt and Syria, are just across our borders. Netanyahu was shocked by the ousting of Mubarak. The underlying fear in Israel for many years was that after Mubarak we were going to see a replay of the 1979 Iranian revolution, with another ally replaced by a hostile Islamic republic. We feared an Iran next door.
Netanyahu was scared, but after a while he realised that it was not as bad as it might have been, for the situations are very different. Netanyahu was mostly able to discipline the Israeli system against any open rivalry with the Muslim Brotherhood. If you recall, there was not one Israeli statement against the Muslim Brotherhood [in Egypt], the party, it’s ideology, or Mohammed Morsi. That was pretty remarkable. I don’t think that the Likud government and the Muslim Brotherhood have much in common in terms of worldview but Netanyahu’s main goal was to keep the peace treaty with Egypt as strong as possible, regardless of who was running the show in Cairo.
With Syria it was different. Syria was never Israel’s strategic ally, but it shared a lot of common interests with Israel and the most important of them was to keep the Golan Heights quiet, which the Assad dynasty has done for almost 40 years. Once again, for Netanyahu the main goal was to keep it this way so he wouldn’t intervene in Syria. He wouldn’t help the rebels and he bet on Assad; and after two years Obama reached the same conclusion. When Obama was in Israel in March 2013 he stood next to Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office, saying that Assad must go and so on. He blamed Assad for the atrocities, whilst Netanyahu was paying respect to the victims in Syria but not assigning any blame. It was a stark difference, and it took Obama almost six months to reach a deal which leaves Assad in place in return for disarmament. This was Netanyahu’s line all along.
It would have been very easy to get mixed up in the turmoil in Syria but Netanyahu kept Israel out of it. It comes with a moral price because hundreds of thousands of people are murdered across the border and Israel did nothing beyond treating a token number of patients in Israeli hospitals. Netanyahu is more interested in power plays than in the moral dimension of politics.
Part 5: Netanyahu: person and leader
AJ: Let’s talk about Netanyahu as a person. First of all, he’s a son. People talk a lot about the role of his late father Benzion Netanyahu, an Israeli historian and intellectual. Do you think he was an important factor in Bibi’s intellectual and political formation?
AB: Of course. Like all of us. Netanyahu is no different especially when you live under the shadow of an intellectual power house like his father who was a historian of anti-Semitism and the Spanish Inquisition. When you read what Netanyahu has been saying it has a lot to do with the fear of persecution of Jews, so obviously there was an influence. At the end of the day Netanyahu is an individual person and his father never held political office and in politics it’s a different set of considerations than in academia where you could write and say whatever you want. The second issue is that Netanyahu is one of the most intellectual among Israeli leaders. He is not a scholar and he is not a historian…
AJ: Very widely read though…
AB: …Interestingly, Netanyahu is an architect by training, which he doesn’t really talk about. He likes to draw. The way he expresses himself is by drawing. (That Iranian bomb cartoon was a prime example of that.) Now, I don’t know what kind of an architectural student he was at MIT, but it’s one of the most prestigious schools of architecture in the world and you don’t just get there to spend four years having fun in college. Then he went to study management and he likes to read history books and books about economic affairs. His real passion is in
the economy, more than in security. I think he did as well as anyone to revolutionise the Israeli economy in the last 20 years. When you look back at Netanyahu’s actual achievements beyond being re-elected twice and staying in office for so long, it’s in the economy. Yet, at the end of the day he has left very little mark on foreign policy.
AJ: Netanyahu’s book on terrorism: does he get credit points for prescience about the significance of the threat from terrorism, and the need for moral clarity to fight it?
AB: I’m not sure. I think it played to the ears of American neo-cons more than Israeli public opinion. Netanyahu likes to praise himself for being the first to see, the first to identify the problem. One of the most bizarre examples was the mining disaster in Chile with the miners locked underground for 34 days or so. His office put out a press release mentioning that in one of his books published several years before, Netanyahu wrote about a mining disaster that would capture the entire world’s attention. So he was even the first to identify that!
I think this goes to the heart of his leadership. Netanyahu is a very good analyst, he’s a very good diplomat and as he grew up he became an excellent politician. In other words he knows to identify and rightly assess power plays. Where he’s weak is in decision making and as he grew up he turned this into an asset by praising stability. ‘I bring stability’ he says; economic stability, security stability. In many ways, it’s true. Netanyahu’s foreign and security policy is Ronald Reaganesque: spend a lot of money on a very big powerful military, but use it only sparsely. If I recall correctly, the largest military operation under Reagan was the occupation of Granada, which is around the size of this building! Nevertheless, he expanded the American military beyond belief and Netanyahu has done pretty much the same. He did more than Grenada but very pin-point. It was the same in his first term.
There is a pattern. It is very hard for Netanyahu to make up his mind when changing direction. When he does that, and he does it occasionally like any other leader, it always follows the same pattern. He likes to show that he was forced to change his mind by the powers that be, whether Israeli public opinion or the American administration. It goes back to the Wye Agreement signed with Yasser Arafat in the 90s. You see it in the Shalit deal with Hamas which was a belated effort to appease public opinion after the summer protest which was about social affairs, but he needed to throw a bone to the Arab public. So he made the Shalit deal. You see it in the half-hearted apology to Erdoğan, with Obama sitting next to him. You see it in the reluctant acceptance of the Iranian deal now. He likes to show that he had to make up his mind against whatever he preached for, because he was forced to do it.
Some people argue that he is simply too weak and too paranoid to take risks. I’m not sure it’s just a psychology, but you could see it with Iran: his rhetoric was in opposition to his actions. He didn’t bomb and he coordinated everything with the Americans so there was no real Israeli unilateral action in Iran. We read that even the covert action, cyber-attacks, were an American-Israeli joint project so the decision maker Netanyahu is very different to the public speaker Netanyahu.
AJ: You’ve written of a disengaged Netanyahu who offers little hope to Israelis…
AB: Well, Netanyahu’s campaigns from the early 1990s onwards were always about fear, never about hope, on foreign policy at least. Economically, yes, it was about hope and opportunity. In economics, Netanyahu is a revolutionary; very different from the security leader Netanyahu. But in both spheres he loves to appear to be standing up to the powers that be and standing on principle. That was exactly the way he played it vis-à-vis Obama on Iran. Now that doesn’t mean that he was not forced to accept the deal and to do whatever the Americans wanted, but he likes as long as he can to fight the powers that be. As Finance Minister he did that against the unions and the banks and more recently in a different way against the cellular phone companies in Israel and the tycoons. He loves fighting stronger powers but he has become more sophisticated, and now he is more focussed. In his first term he tried to fight everyone – the elite, the military leadership, everybody in the bureaucracy and the judiciary. Today he doesn’t fight on all fronts simultaneously, but the way he reacted to the Geneva deal was classic Netanyahu. ‘I’m standing on principle, the others are wrong and I’m going to say that. That’s how I spoke up against Oslo, when that deal was enormously popular in Israel and all over the world, that’s the way I spoke up against the surrender to terrorism in the 80s, that’s how I spoke up against the powerful trade unions in Israel.’ That’s classic Netanyahu, but it’s not always translated to actual decision making.
AJ: It is said all political careers end in failure. Where will Benjamin Netanyahu’s end? He shows no sign of waning; he has no serious rival for the role of Prime Minister. What do you think is his end goal? Does he have and exit strategy? What are the threats to his position?
AB: He’s young, just 64. That was the age of Begin when he took office for the first time. Ben-Gurion was 61. As far as we know Netanyahu is a very healthy person, so he’s got a very long political career ahead of him. I think his main thing is to be the leader and the public face of Israel for as long as possible, and the guy who kept Israel safe and secure and led it though the tempests of a very volatile region in a very difficult period. So far I haven’t seen a major legacy.
AJ: On the two state deal, at some point Sharon had an epiphany, Olmert had an epiphany…
AB: … I think Netanyahu is still sitting on the fence on this one. He’s got the opportunity, he’s got the capability; I’m just not sure that he’s there. Even if, and when, he reaches that point, I think it would be much easier and more fitting for Netanyahu to be able to show that he was forced to do it. Or in other words an American bridging proposal would be easier for Netanyahu to swallow than coming up with his own map like Olmert or Barak did. And that’s the major difference between him and those leaders. To them the most important thing was to show that Israel was in control, that they were in charge, that they were putting forward the proposal and trying to force the Palestinians into a deal. I’m not sure it was right because the Barak and Olmert plans ended in nothing. In the first case it ended in intifada and in the Olmert case it ended with nothing. Netanyahu would do it only as a type of surrender to American or domestic pressure.
AJ: Aluf Benn. Editor-in-chief of Haaretz Newspaper thanks very much for sharing your insights with Fathom readers today.
AB: Thanks for inviting me.