June 3, 2019
In an exclusive one-on-one interview with AJC CEO David Harris, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said any peace plan negotiated with the Palestinians must let Israel oversee security in the West Bank.
That sliver of land west of the Jordan River that is no bigger than, in Netanyahu’s words, “the Beltway of Washington, D.C.” is vital to Israel’s existence and the wellbeing of the Palestinian people, he said during the interview recorded last month. A portion of the interview was shared with nearly 2,500 delegates at AJC Global Forum 2019 in Washington, D.C.
“Israel will have to have the overriding security responsibility, both for our sake, the security of Israel, but paradoxically also the security of the Palestinians,” the Israeli prime minister said. “Because if we don’t maintain that responsibility, the Palestinian authority will be overthrown in two seconds by militant Islam. That is the main issue.”
Pointing to the takeover of Gaza by Hamas and of Lebanon by Hezbollah when Israeli forces left both, Netanyahu said he has made it clear to multiple U.S. administrations that Israel can’t abdicate responsibility over the West Bank.
“We can’t have that happen in the center of the country in Judea Samaria,” he said. “That will spell an end to Israel.”
Netanyahu, who spoke to AJC Global Forum when it met in Jerusalem last year, taped the conversation with Harris in his Jerusalem office amid tense negotiations to build a coalition government. He was ultimately unsuccessful and faces another election in September.
Netanyahu lauded Trump for moving the U.S. embassy to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and for recognizing Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights. He also commended the U.S. president for listening to the developing Arab and Israeli consensus in the region and cracking down on Iran.
The Trump administration has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear agreement, a move that prompted Iran to declare it would resume nuclear production. The U.S. responded by imposing additional heavy sanctions on Iran’s steel, aluminum, iron and copper exports. The U.S. also recently designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp as a foreign terrorist organization and sent additional troops to the region.
“They are just enveloping the Middle East in tentacles of aggression,” Netanyahu said of Iran.
“This is a very dangerous regime. It should be pressed, pressured, sanctioned, so it stops its unbelievable aggression in the region. And on this, by the way, Arabs and Israelis agree. And I would say as a general word of advice, when Arabs and Israelis agree, it’s worth paying attention to. We must know something. And we do.”
Though Netanyahu alluded to the historic tension between Arabs and Israelis, he also signaled significant warming between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors as well as other Muslim countries, much of it pioneered by AJC.
“I think they’re actually moving faster to a different appreciation of Israel,” the prime minister said. “First, they don’t see Israel any longer as their enemy, but as their indispensable ally in standing up to Iranian aggression and even, I would say, beyond that, to joining to achieve technological progress in their respective countries. … In many ways, the Arab countries have moved faster than the Palestinians.”
He credited AJC for making crucial diplomatic connections “when we didn’t have the kind of open channels that we have today.”
Netanyahu also addressed Israel’s role in protecting Jews around the world from the scourge of antisemitism. He said Israel should be connected to people of the Jewish Diaspora who “have a great common history and a common destiny “ He regrets that relations between Israel and the Diaspora are “fraying,” but that doesn’t minimize Israel’s obligation to protect those who don’t choose to live there and face antisemitism.
“The founders of modern Zionism didn’t think that antisemitism would necessarily disappear. … They said it’s not that the attacks will disappear once you have a Jewish state. It means you’d have a means to defend yourselves against these attacks once you have the Jewish state. We built the state. We built an army. … We were able to defeat our enemies and build this thriving modern state.
“The way to deal with antisemitism is to fight it. Will you eradicate it? No. We haven’t eradicated antisemitism in the Middle East. But we’re here thriving, growing. That’s something we have to do for Jews worldwide.”
Israel’s broader role as a guardian of the Jewish people is something young Jews should understand about Zionism in the 21st century, he said.
“If you want to maintain your Jewish identity, then you have a stake in the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said, “because Israel is the great guarantor of Jewish identity.”