Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is well known for his power of oratory. But with his chief political rival, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, shown to be trusted by just 2 percent of Israelis, according to the latest opinion polls, Netanyahu has been uncharacteristically quiet of late, no doubt figuring there is no need to criticize Olmert when he is inflicting the most damage on himself.
Netanyahu, who was in town last Thursday, didn’t mention the poll results during a 40-minute interview, but he appeared relaxed, friendly and confident, in contrast to his often more business-like demeanor. But when prompted, he moved into high gear in asserting why Olmert is a failure and he, Netanyahu, should be reelected to the post of prime minister.
“It’s very clear that the public wants elections right now, barely a year after the last elections,” he told The Jewish Week as he sipped a bowl of chicken soup at the Regency Hotel.
He said a “lot of voters” who had defected from the Likud Party he chairs to join the new Kadima Party that Olmert inherited from Ariel Sharon were now returning to Likud, including the brother of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. “I think this reflects a broad understanding among many parts of the public that the Likud was right in our political and security assessments,” Netanyahu said, adding that his economic policies had produced “spectacular” growth.
In the interview, he said also that he does not favor opening peace talks with Syria until it stops supporting terrorist organizations, believes there is no “political horizon” with the Palestinians because Hamas is in control, favors economic sanctions against Iran to convince it to halt its nuclear development program, and that Israeli corruption would be abated with “dilution of power and transparency.”
Netanyahu said that because members of the Knesset don’t want to risk their jobs by calling new elections now, it would be some time before they are held. But he said he is convinced the current government will not survive until its term expires in three years.
Asked about the upcoming Winograd Committee’s report on the government’s handling of last summer’s war against Hezbollah, Netanyahu said it is irrelevant whether the committee recommends Olmert’s ouster. “The public has already made up its mind that the prime minister failed in the conduct of the war,” he said, adding that coalitions end when the public “says enough is enough.”
“That sense is building in the public,” he said. “People now understand in retrospect that we did the right thing for the country at considerable political cost for myself and my party,” Netanyahu said.
He was referring to his unseating as prime minister in 1999 when Labor Party leader Ehud Barak trounced him at the polls. Netanyahu then resigned his leadership of Likud and gave up his Knesset seat. And in last year’s elections, Likud won only 12 Knesset seats to Kadima’s 29 based on Olmert’s pledge to unilaterally withdraw from parts of the West Bank following the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
“We said [that] unilaterally withdrawing from the Gaza Strip would merely empower Hamas, bring down the moderates and bring the missiles closer, creating also a flood of weapons from the Sinai into Gaza,” he recalled. “All of that has happened with detrimental effect to Israel’s security, and a terrible price for 10,000 of our brothers [in Gaza] who became refugees in their own land. All of that suffering for what? To move the Hamas missiles closer to Ashkelon and Ashdod?“
Somebody ought to have learned a lesson. Apparently Mr. Olmert has not. It’s one of the reasons why the public’s mood has shifted and the political fortunes have been reversed. My party and I suffered at the polls. We were looked upon as scaremongers — talking about the Iranian enclaves and the missiles that would be fired. Evidently a lot of people have concluded that we were right in our assessment and that Mr. Olmert was wrong.”
One Israeli poll reportedly shows that if elections were held today, Netanyahu would soundly defeat Olmert, whose popularity plunged in the wake of last summer’s 34-day war against Hezbollah. “The failure in the war was a failure of both leadership and strategy,” Netanyahu said. “The government actually set the correct goals, which I have supported … namely to dismantle Hezbollah’s fighting capability, remove the missile threat and get our soldiers back. But the government didn’t preserve and pursue any of these to conclusion.”
There were also tactical errors, he continued, such as failing to call up the reserves immediately to use them in a rear ground assault against Hezbollah troops.
Asked what he would do to rescue Israel’s kidnapped soldiers, Netanyahu suggested a “carrot and stick” approach that might involve kidnapping leaders of Hezbollah and then trading for their release. Netanyahu, who was in the U.S. to convince the managers of state and federal pension funds to withdraw their investments in foreign companies that conduct business with Iran, predicted that such a move would “send an avalanche on Iran’s current leaders.”
He pointed out that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “just lost an election because of economic problems, and I believe that considerably more pressure can be placed on the regime with such actions.”
All of this is designed to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions in the face of threats by Ahmadinejad to destroy Israel. Asked about his previous analogy between present-day Iran and 1938 Germany, Netanyahu questioned whether the “world learned its lesson” after the Holocaust. “Now we have our own country, our own state, and the last thing we should do is be passive on the world scene and pretend that somebody who tells you that he is going to exterminate you is just ranting for internal public opinion,” he argued. “That is what they said about Hitler. They were wrong then and they are wrong now. These people are deadly serious — with an emphasis on deadly — and they should be stopped.”
Asked if he could foresee Israel having to confront Iran alone, Netanyahu said that Israel “should forge the natural alliances against the danger this is common to all of us. Iran is a danger to the world, not just to Israel.”
Regarding the Palestinians, Netanyahu said Israel is not able to move towards peace with the Palestinians because there is no “peace partner.”
“Hamas, which is a derivative of Iran right now, says like its patron that its goal is to annihilate the State of Israel,” he said, adding that despite its recent agreement to form a coalition government with Fatah, it has not changed its position.
Netanyahu brushed aside the desire of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to outline a “political horizon” for peace, insisting: “As long as the extremists are gaining ground to rule the day, you can’t have a political horizon; you have a very clouded horizon. In order to change that, you have to have the extremists defeated, not coddled or understood, but defeated so the moderates can rise. Therefore, the first task is to support the efforts to bring down the Hamas regime and not make concessions to it.”