Last Tuesday afternoon, not far from Mount Hermon in northern Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu picked up a pair of binoculars and watched the soldiers of the Golani Brigade's 12th Battalion train in the Golan Heights. They were tired, and nearing the end of an exercise that began on Sunday. The soldiers hadn't slept since the exercise began, the commander explained. But they were still running, charging at the hills and destroying simulated enemy fighters, staging impressive attacks.
At that moment, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz whispered something in Netanyahu's ear: "When I was a battalion commander, we charged the same targets. These guys are good." Netanyahu, in response, took Gantz even deeper into the past, saying, "I ran here too. The same targets."
When the exercise was over, Netanyahu took Gantz aside, far from the media's microphones. It stands to reason that the conversation they held privately was about a completely different target.
"This is the most important conversation of his day," one of the PM's aides said.
Netanyahu insisted on speaking to the soldiers. He stepped into one of the armored vehicles, manned by soldiers who had just completed an arduous exercise, to talk to them in person. The following day, at his office, he confessed: "This job has its good moments too. It's not just stress and difficult decisions. My conversation with the soldiers yesterday, for example, was a good moment. In general, when I go out into the field, it is a wonderful opportunity for me to recharge. It's not all one long, serious effort where you're just working and not enjoying yourself."
The prime minister's schedule kept delaying our interview. At first by one hour, then by another hour, and then by four hours. The time was 11 p.m. and Netanyahu and his team were still hard at work. It was a long workday that began at midnight the previous day, with a long-distance telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama, followed by several additional important calls with other world leaders: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and French President Francois Hollande. There was also a long discussion on economic issues.
The prime minister dedicates a lot of time to thinking about how to handle the Iranian nuclear issue. It is an existential threat that is rapidly approaching, Netanyahu believes. That is the main topic on his agenda, and a central issue in talks with American officials as well.
What did you say, and what did you hear, in your conversation with the U.S. president?
"It was a good conversation that revolved around significant issues and our desire to prevent Iran from progressing any further with their military nuclear program. It is natural to have disagreements. Israel is closer [to Iran] and more vulnerable. The U.S. is big, far away, and less vulnerable. Naturally we have diverging views on certain things. In the face of a threat like Iran's nuclear armament, I believe that it is important that the international community set a clear red line. Iran has taken obvious steps in recent years and months toward developing nuclear weapons capability."
Do you believe Obama when he says, "We will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons"?
"I'm certain that he means what he says, just as the Europeans mean it when they say it and the same way we mean it when we say it. But the question is how to achieve this in a practical fashion — that is what we discussed. This is the main issue affecting our future. Naturally, a prime minister should be looking out for Israel's essential interests. I do so in conversations with world leaders and in public remarks."
It appears as though you are currently in conflict with Obama. Is Israel in conflict with the U.S.?
"It is not a conflict. It is a question of emphasis on Israel's interests, and that is the responsibility of the prime minister of Israel. I have been saying these things for 16 years.
"At first I was almost the only one warning against this danger, and then others joined me. I called for sanctions on Iran and I was nearly alone in that call, but then others joined me. I was the first one to demand red lines, and maybe I am alone at this time, but I believe that others will soon join me.
"A prime minister's and a leader's duty is to insist on the things that are essential to Israel's security, even when it is not easy, and even when there is criticism, and even when there is no immediate agreement on everything.
"If, over the last 16 years, I had listened to the advice of all those people who told me that this or that is 'unacceptable' or that 'now is not the right time' or 'wait until the circumstances shift in your favor,' I don't know if we would have made it this far. I was able to contribute to the establishment of a global coalition against Iran. We are encumbering Iran's economy, but we have not yet reached the main objective: stopping Iran's nuclear program. And Iran is getting ever closer to achieving its own objective. That is why I am saying things in the most responsible, thought-out, measured way possible — to our American friends as well — that we have a common goal: stopping the Iranians."
When you make remarks to the Americans in such a blunt way, doesn't it cause damage?
"I'm not saying things in a blunt way, but in an honest way, just the facts. I can make nice and word things delicately, but our existence is at stake. This is our future. We're talking about a historic junction that has profound meaning. These are not just words and I am not exaggerating. That is what I have done, and that is what I will continue to do."
Is the just thing also the right thing to do when dealing with the U.S.? Is it wise to disregard the advice of the American president?
"Who says that I am disregarding the president's advice? I actually listen to his advice very carefully. But I think that when it comes to issues such as these — and generally, in life, I find this to be true in many respects — the just thing is always the right thing. If you do what justice and common sense suggest, it is also the right thing to do. Iran is obviously approaching the threshold of nuclear capability. Unfortunately, things have gotten this far."
The U.S. is in the midst of an election year. There are allegations that you are intervening and impacting the elections. There are those who say that you are putting all your eggs in one basket.
"That is complete nonsense. The only thing guiding me is not the U.S. elections but the centrifuges in Iran. It is not my fault that the centrifuges aren't more considerate of the Americans' political timetable. If the Iranians were to hit the 'pause' button and stop enriching uranium and building a bomb until the end of the elections in the U.S. — then I could wait.
“But they are not waiting. They are progressing. The things that I am saying have to do with events in Iran, not events in the U.S. The desire to stop Iran is common to all Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike. There is no distinction in the desire to stop this thing. It is my duty as the prime minister of Israel, when I see Iran's nuclear program barreling forward, to say the things that I think are necessary to ensure the future of the State of Israel. It has nothing to do with American politics."
What needs to happen for Israel to shift from talk to action?
"I don't think that there is any point in going into that."
How long before Iran reaches the zone of immunity?
"Every day that goes by brings Iran closer to its goal."
Is there a disagreement with the U.S. over that assessment?
"I don't think that there are big gaps in our assessments of the point at which Iran will complete its preparations. The question is when action needs to be taken, not so much in terms of the date, but more in terms of the process: when Iran will reach a point beyond which it will be extremely difficult to stop. Obviously our answer to that question is different from that of the U.S. because there is a difference in our capabilities. But time is running out for the U.S. too."
Are we alone in facing Iran?
"I am doing everything in my power to turn everyone against Iran. We are safeguarding our ability to act on our own in the face of any threat to our security and our future. The entire world is besieging Iran, financially speaking, and we should encourage that.
"A large part of the world has enlisted to the cause and answered our call. There is an international framework to press Iran, but we still can't say that, despite all the real difficulties imposed on Iran's economy, it is stopping Iranian aspirations. I see both sides of the equation, but I'm not satisfied with just one."
When the top echelon of the defense establishment, the former heads of the Mossad and the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and a former IDF chief of staff are all saying that we should not attack Iran at this time, and that we should wait for the U.S., how much weight do their opinions carry?
"I hear all kinds of different voices. I hear people saying that we should wait until the very last minute. But what if the U.S. fails to intervene? That is a question that we have to ask. What about red lines? I ask all these questions in the appropriate forums and in private conversations with our American friends. These are important questions. There is no point in discussing it in public forums."
What about when President Shimon Peres makes those same remarks?
"There are many things that Peres and I agree on, and there are things we disagree on. The State of Israel is not a country that lacks varying opinions. We are a vibrant people and everyone is free to formulate their own opinion. Usually everyone also expresses their own opinion. But the country is run by the prime minister, and the person leading the government and deciding on policy is the prime minister, and that is how it will continue to be."
Is Israel prepared for an attack on the homefront?
"We are living in the missile age, which we entered during the Gulf War. There has been a decades-long gap in preparedness. An entire generation has gone by without proper homefront preparations. I take this issue very seriously, and I hold meetings on homefront preparedness every other week. I am personally involved in the matter. In the same way that I was personally involved in building the fence in Sinai [along the Israeli-Egyptian border], which has stopped infiltrators, thus, here, we are also working methodically.
"We can't protect every point in Israel, but we can protect most of it. One of the things that has made me very happy is the fact that the Iron Dome [missile interceptor system] has become operational. It was a decision I made during my term, and the results have been good.
"But it is important to remember this: You can protect from missiles in one way or another, but there is one thing there is no protection from: the atom bomb. The only thing that can protect us is preventing it from becoming a reality in the hands of the enemy. And, of course, we have to clarify to anyone who ever considers attacking Israel with weapons of mass destruction that he does so at his own peril."
The prime minister sits with a stack of papers written in marker pens containing the main points he feels he needs to communicate during this interview. One of them is the tremendous investment in infrastructure that he initiated: the paving of new roads; new highway interchanges; underground rail tunnels in Jerusalem where a fortune is being invested. But "this the media doesn't really want to hear about it," he says.
"This is a revolution. Listen to me, a revolution," he says. When he goes into detail and gives thorough explanations and presents data outlining the achievements in an organized fashion.
"We have revolutionized education. Free education from the age of three — that means a lot of money to citizens with children that age. They save 800 shekels on average per month, or more. Higher education also got a boost of millions upon millions. We established a new medical school in Safed.
"Meanwhile, we have made huge strides in the health system: free dental care for children until the age of 12; we added 1,000 beds to hospitals. These are accomplishments that we cannot let our nation's short memory erase from the public's awareness.
"I'm not saying that the current reality is devoid of problems or challenges. Obviously the opposite is true. In the last four years we faced two enormous challenges: the global economic crisis and the tremendous regional turmoil. These are things that haven't happened here in nearly 100 years, but they happened now. We managed to maintain an island of stability. Israel is a small country, and it is located in the most unstable region in the world. Its population is greatly varied. There are a lot of challenges, but I find that we are able to do things that the citizens of Israel appreciate. But they don't get any media buzz.
"Contrary to all the media reports, the citizens of Israel rank themselves 14th in the world happiness index. Israel's economy ranks sixth. We are third in innovation and the life expectancy of Israeli men is the third highest among OECD countries. So something does trickle down to the citizens in Israel. I know that it is not always on the media's agenda, but these are real things that are important to promote."
The state comptroller recently submitted a report that deals with the rising cost of food. The report found that when Israel's successive governments removed the price supervision from certain food items, in a centralized market, the prices skyrocketed. Is there any room to consider reinstating oversight over some of the products? What are the appropriate responses to handling the rising cost of living?
"This issue is on a lot of citizens' minds. The treasury officials say that inflation since the beginning of the year is at about 2 percent. So there is no factual basis to this talk of rising costs. It is a feeling, and we must respect the citizens who feel this way. However, there was a drought in America [and] there are the rising oil costs and high food costs that affect not only us but the entire world. When I look at the price comparisons every day in Israel Hayom [which takes one product each day and compares its prices in Israel, Europe and the U.S.] and I see a product that costs 50% more here than it does in the European or American market, I get really angry. I ask, why? Usually, the answer is the absence of competition."
In many OECD countries, differential taxation is customary. Thus, for example, certain dairy products carry a very low sales tax, or none at all. Should we not consider differential taxation here in Israel as well?
"We are considering a long list of measures to counter the rising cost of living. I have a lot of sympathy for the financial difficulties, but it is clear that the citizens of Israel are confronted with the same difficulty as citizens in other countries when it comes to gasoline prices, for example. The same is true of food costs. Israelis are having just as hard a time as citizens of the entire world.
"And still, during the last four years, despite the deepest economic crisis in a century, we have succeeded in maintaining an island of economic growth and job creation. Unemployment in Israel was at 6.5%. Meanwhile, there are countries in Europe where the unemployment rate has hit 25%. We have a more consistent growth rate than almost any other Western country."
In recent weeks, scheduled budget talks were postponed. The Finance Ministry has warned that if the talks aren't held soon, and preparations aren't made, it will be difficult to pass next year's budget. Are we to expect a budget for 2013?
"My goal is to have a budget for 2013. I am currently in talks about it with the heads of the coalition factions. We are still talking about it. We will finish in coming weeks."
What are the cuts planned for next year's budget?
"The cuts we will have to make will be a direct product of the fiscal guideline that determines how much we can spend in relation to the deficit forecast. That's how we operate. But it is important to mention that there are a lot of benefits that have already been approved. Tax breaks for working parents of young children, for example. We also reformed the mobile phone industry, saving consumers hundreds of shekels per month."
But the budget needs to be cut. Estimates suggest a 14 billion shekel ($3.6 billion) cut. How do you make such cuts in what will be an election year?
"Politically speaking, it is not ideal. But in terms of responsibility and the country's needs we are handling this responsibly. Israel is a small country, surrounded by challenges. We live in the most unstable region in the world. There are different sectors here; new immigrants and veteran citizens. But we have managed to do things that the people of Israel appreciate. We've managed to do two things simultaneously: achieve stable security and advance economically and socially. We did this amid two of the most serious ordeals of the century: the Arab Spring and the global economic crisis. It is a fiscal and civil responsibility. These achievements don't obviate all the other things, but they are a good indication that we are doing the right things."
Several businesspeople labeled by the media as "tycoons" have run into some financial trouble recently. Will the government step in and help them?
"I don't like the label 'tycoons.' I don't want to institute policies that counter entrepreneurship and work against businesspeople. I am in favor of competition and I think it is the root of our success. Technological and scientific developments alone cannot propel economies. Soviet Russia was full of scientists and mathematicians. You have to incorporate that power into a dynamic economy that encourages entrepreneurship and business. The last thing I want to do is harm the business sector, because ultimately, it is carrying everything else.
“[However,] I will not accept cartels, because that is the opposite of competition. The opposite of competition is centralized wealth, whether it is governmental or private, that prevents real competition from coming about. Therefore, I do everything in my power to break up the monopolies and the cartels, the way we did in the mobile phone industry and the way will in the food industry. Without a growing economy there is no way to pay for and address security needs. We need a strong economy and to keep all the wheels moving in tandem. We are doing it with our fair share of problems and challenges. When you look at other economies in the world, you see Israel's achievements."
It looks as though housing prices have begun climbing again, despite various government measures. Will there be additional measures to bring housing prices down?
"According to the data I have, housing prices have risen by 1.8% since the beginning of the year. That is far less than in previous years. Prices are too high, in my opinion, and we are working to increase the supply of apartments. The current supply stands at 80,000 units. That is why the sharp price hike has leveled out. But we want more. Opening up the main routes on the highways will help. What was once considered to be in the periphery will no longer be in the periphery. Using the freeway you can get [to central Israel] in a short time and you can afford a house with a yard. You have to leave Gush Dan [central Israel] and then you can see the revolution. Even inside Gush Dan you can see the revolution."
Are there moments of pleasure in your job?
When I'm out on the field meeting soldiers, that is a pleasure. It is a perfect way to recharge. When I met with Gilad Schalit [the soldier abducted by Hamas who was released in October 2011 after five years in captivity], when I congratulated Dan Shechtman [who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2011], when I met the delegation coming back from the Paralympics."
"The average wage has gone up," he says. "In what other country has the average wage gone up? Our minimum wage has reached an all-time record too. Do these things eliminate our other problems? No. Do they solve the high cost of gasoline? No. The rising food prices? No. Obviously there are those who will always look at the glass half empty. But deep inside, the public knows that we have handled the economic aspects responsibly and the security issues impressively. We are waging a global campaign against Iran that has produced unprecedented international pressure.
"In addition, there is political stability in Israel that hasn't been seen here for years. My administration is completing almost four years in power. It is no coincidence; it is a direct product of policy and leadership."
You have been blamed for the collapsing communications market: for involvement, or inaction, in saving Channel 10 and the collapse of the Maariv newspaper.
"Funny that no such allegations were made when industrial plants were forced to close down. I don't think that we, as a government, can or should intervene in the communications market. If we do we will be accused of the opposite — people will say that we are controlling the media by providing assistance to this or that media outlet. There is a real problem in the market. It is simply too small to support the number of media outlets that exist. I hope that all the channels and newspapers find a way to survive, but the government can't do everything."
When should we expect general elections?
"Sometime in 2013."
Will there be a 2013 budget?
"If it is up to me, then yes. I am talking to the coalition faction heads and I want to make sure that they are not making demands that will prevent [the budget from going through]. We are not done discussing things, but we will be done in the coming weeks. The possibility of early elections exists, but that is not my goal."
Regardless of what he says, it still appears as though the prime minister is already thinking about elections. In a direct continuation of Israel's struggles with economic and security issues, the prime minister is issuing a clear message to undecided voters deliberating between him and two new political players, whom he does not name, but who are clearly the two former journalists Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich and Yair Lapid.
"Israel is not a country that is easy to run. Some say that being the prime minister of Israel is the toughest job on earth. Indeed, it is a job that comes with a lot of challenges. To lead this country, to do this difficult job, you need experience and know-how on how to handle the economy. You need financial understanding and the ability to mobilize the international system.
"Personally, I look at my first term as prime minister [1996-1999]. I was the youngest Israeli prime minister, at 46. I had 14 years of experience in the political arena. I was an Israeli envoy in Washington and then the ambassador to the United Nations, then deputy foreign minister and then leader of the opposition.
"During my second term [which began in 2009], I can say that the experience I have amassed since then really changes your perspective and gives you a greater ability to work for the benefit of the citizens of your country. To anyone who aspires to get to this place I say: Get some experience. It is important. It will help you cope."