Netanyahu on Biden’s Iran strategy: It’s a mistake to rely solely on agreements

Asked whether he trusts US president on nuclear issue, premier says he relies on himself; starts singing when asked repeated questions about allegedly illegal acceptance of gifts

By TOI STAFF26 February 2021, 12:23 am  3

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets actress Carmit Mesilati Kaplan, right, during a visit to the Khan theater ahead of the re-opening of the culture sector, in Jerusalem on February 23, 2021. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool Photo via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets actress Carmit Mesilati Kaplan, right, during a visit to the Khan theater ahead of the re-opening of the culture sector, in Jerusalem on February 23, 2021. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool Photo via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday said he has told US President Joe Biden that he will do whatever it takes to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, regardless of whether Washington reenters the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.

“I told him, with or without an agreement, my obligation as the prime minister of Israel, as the prime minister of the Jewish state, is to prevent a recurrence of the terrible things that have been done to our people,” Netanyahu said in an interview with Channel 13.

“There is a regime whose flagship goal is to destroy us. I will do everything I can, everything in my power, to prevent it from attaining nuclear weapons,” he said.

When pressed on whether that includes the use of military force, Netanyahu asserted, “Including whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons.”

Israel will always uphold the military option, he said, while the sanctions are to a great extent dependent on Biden. “I’ll never put Israel’s security in anybody else’s hands,” he repeated.

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a joint press conference at the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

He rejected the premise that the existing deal, which Iran has violated, would be better than no agreement at all.

“An agreement with a state like that? How many times do we need to learn from history. Agreements are made. But if you rely solely on agreements, that’s a mistake,” said Netanyahu.

Asked if he relies on Biden when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu responded: “I rely on myself, on ourselves.”

“I don’t entrust the security of Israel to anybody else… Israel must be able and determined to defend itself, by itself,” he added, clarifying that he has a close relationship with Biden. “We are friends, close friends even. He eulogized my father; I spoke to him after the death of his son.”

The Biden administration is seeking to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program, which former president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from in 2018.

Washington has said it is prepared to reenter the JCPOA if Iran first returns to compliance with the restrictions it has been openly violating for the past several months. While Jerusalem’s priority is the nuclear issue, it is hoping the US will also demand curbs to Tehran’s ballistic missile program and regional aggressions. Biden has said he wants to address those issues in a subsequent agreement after the sides return to the existing JCPOA, but Israel fears the US will lose the leverage that has been built by the Trump administration’s maximum pressure sanctions regime once it returns to the old deal and that Iran will not be willing to negotiate further.

In this Feb. 3, 2007 file photo, a technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

‘I’m sorry’

The combative interview addressed a range of topics, including Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic. The premier insisted that he has handled the crisis well given the country’s world-leading vaccine drive.

However, Channel 13 pushed back against the premier over the rest of his government’s managing of the health crisis and urged Netanyahu to apologize for the thousands of lives lost in Israel thus far.

“Every death…. is terrible. We’re in a joint struggle… I’m sorry that we haven’t succeeded [in preventing the deaths], and together we’ll succeed… We’re the only ones who will succeed because I’ve brought vaccinations,” Netanyahu said, while refraining from answering whether his policies for dealing with the pandemic led to avoidable fatalities.

“Every death is a tragedy. But for a while now, there’s no reason for anybody to die, or at least 97 percent, 95 percent,” he said — a reference to the vaccines’ effectiveness.

“Tens of thousands of businesses are indeed fighting for their lives… When I try to help them [financially], I’m told by politicians and legal advisers that I can’t do that” because of the election campaign, he lamented.

Netanyahu railed at the Israeli media and at legal officials for opposing his spending plans amid the campaign for the March 23 elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein seen during a visit at COVID-19 vaccination center in Zarzir, northern Israel, February 9, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

He declared his intention to turn Israel into “the fastest growing economy in the world.”

Asked why neighboring Cyprus had a lower death toll proportionately, Netanyahu noted that it is an island.

“We’re not an island. We have the Palestinians in our midst. We can’t close Jenin… Thirty prime ministers have called me to say we congratulate you for the way you have handled this,” he said.

The premier repeated his claim that Israel will be the first country to emerge from the pandemic and denied Australia and New Zealand are already in the clear.

He claimed that local media is always highlighting blunders while international media has recognized Israel’s successes. Much of the international media’s focus of late has also been on the fact that the Palestinians have gone largely unvaccinated as Israel has inoculated roughly half of its citizens.

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Netanyahu denies stoking divisions

Netanyahu denied accusations that he fuels divisions in Israeli society, as he was asked about past comments against Arabs, the left and other divisive rhetoric.

“I am the prime minister of everyone. I bring vaccines to all Israelis, without exception. I bring peace agreements to all Israelis, without exception. I bring economic assistance to all Israelis, without exception. I protect the security, better this year than ever, of all Israelis, without exception…. And I stop the Iranian nuclear armament for all Israelis, without exception,” he told Channel 13.

He dismissed a Thursday poll from the network, which found that 58% of Israelis don’t want him to continue as prime minister. “Wait for the real survey,” he responded, referring to next month’s elections.

Defending his decision to keep schools closed longer than any other country, Netanyahu told the network, “I prioritized life above all else.” The health experts advised against opening schools fully, since this would rapidly spread contagion, with fatal consequences, he explained.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with his lawyer Amir Hadad prior to a hearing at the Jerusalem District Court, February 8, 2021. (Reuven Castro/AP)

‘I attack the media because it deserves it’

Netanyahu was also pressed during the television interview on his corruption cases.

Asked about telephoning Arnon Milchan, who is a prosecution witness in Netanyahu’s trial on graft charges, the premier said he didn’t remember exactly when he called him.

He had told Channel 12 earlier this month that he had spoken to Milchan “once or twice” to wish him happy holidays. When the interviewer noted that there hadn’t been any holidays during the time Netanyahu called, the premier pivoted: “It’s all spin by the prosecution to obscure the fact that the cases against me are collapsing.”

“It is permitted to talk to a prosecution witness,” he added, dismissing the cases against him as “fabricated.”

Arnon Milchan poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film ‘Widows’ showing as part of the opening gala of the BFI London Film Festival in London, October 10, 2018. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

Netanyahu said that if he forms a government after the March 23 elections, he won’t use it to evade the trial through legislation or a request for immunity. “I won’t advance those laws,” he said.

He was asked whether his acceptance of expensive gifts from millionaires like Milchan showed he has a “values” problem, and why a wealthy man like him needed to take NIS 700,000-worth gifts of champagne and cigars from Milchan. Netanyahu responded: “I’ll tell you about my values. I dedicate my life, despite the endless false attacks on me, my wife and my children… to public service.” He then spoke about the regime in Iran seeking “to destroy the Jewish state,” and his commitment to prevent this.

Pushed again on the matter, Netanyahu began to sing the chorus of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” (originally released in 1969 by the group Steam).

He had used the words “na na na na” to dismiss questions by Channel 12 last week regarding his handling of the pandemic and chose to put a tune to them in the Channel 13 interview. Interviewer Udi Segal cut him off by saying he was being contemptuous.

Netanyahu responded that he objected to Channel 13’s efforts to distract the public’s attention from the important issues.

As the interview neared its end Netanyahu was asked about former US president Donald Trump, whom the premier praised as a great friend of Israel.

Netanyahu rejected the notion that Trump lost the presidential elections because he didn’t tell the truth, worked to change the rules of democracy and attacked the media, as the interviewee put it. “You’ve determined the reason why he was defeated. I think there are other interpretations for his loss,” Netanyahu said.

Asked if he views himself as the Israeli version of Trump, in part for the ways he too admonishes the press, Netanyahu said, “I attack the media because it deserves it… While world media praises the Israeli miracle, you’re always attacking, everywhere.”

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