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Video and Transcript: Netanyahu on US TV "Meet the Press" (21 June)

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared for 13 minutes on US television, speaking to NBC's "Meet the Press". However, it is a remarkably tangential interview, with host David Gregory spending 12 1/2 minutes on Iran and 1/2 minute on Palestine. Given that the Obama Administration has made clear that Palestine and not Iran is the priority when it comes to US-Israeli relations, and given that issues on the next step with Iran are in suspension while the political crisis continues, Gregory's interview was as useful as chat about the weather, baseball, or the Man in the Moon:

DAVID GREGORY: We want to go live now to Jerusalem and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Prime Minister, welcome.

MR. BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Thank you. Good to be with you.

MR. GREGORY: This is an unfolding story that we've been seeing all week long. The images from the streets are disturbing, you have a violent crackdown under way in Iran. What does your intelligence in Israel tell you about the weakness, the nature of the Iranian regime today?

MR. NETANYAHU: Well, it's not my intelligence, but my common sense and the traditional sense. Obviously, you see a regime that represses its own people and spreads terror far and wide. It is a, a regime whose real nature has been unmasked, and it's been unmasked by incredible acts of courage by Iran's citizens. They, they go into the streets, they face bullets. And I tell you, as somebody who believes deeply in democracy, that you see the Iranian lack of democracy at work. And I think this better explains and best explains to the entire world what this regime is truly about.

MR. GREGORY: I ask about your intelligence services as well in terms of what hard information you have about what's going on inside the regime.

MR. NETANYAHU: I don't know if anyone really knows, and I cannot tell you how this thing will end up. I think something very deep, very fundamental is going on, and there's an expression of a deep desire amid the people of Iran for freedom, certainly for greater freedom. But perhaps the word is a simple one, freedom. This is what is going on. You don't need all the intelligence apparatus that modern states have to see something when it faces you right away. It, it's facing you in--it's staring us in the face, there's no question about that.

MR. GREGORY: You know there's been quite a debate here in the United States and really around the world about what President Obama should do and should say at a moment like this. He has said over the weekend that these are unjust actions, that the whole world is watching, that Iran should not violently crack down on its people. Has he said and done enough, do you think?

MR. NETANYAHU: I'm not going to second-guess the president of the United States. I know President Obama wants the people of Iran to be free. He said as much in his seminal speech in Cairo before the Muslim world. I've spoken to him a number of times on this subject, there's no question we'd all like to see a different, a different Iran with different policies. Remember, this is a regime that not only represses its own people--Sakharov said, Andrei Sakharov, the great Russian scientist and humanist, said that a regime that oppresses its own people sooner or later will oppress its neighbors. And certainly Iran has been doing that. It's been calling for the, the denial of the Holocaust. It's threatening to wipe Israel off the map. It's pursuing nuclear weapons. To that effect it's sponsoring terror against us, but throughout the world. So I think what everybody would like to see is a change in policy, and the change of policy is both outside and inside.

MR. GREGORY: But does the United States have a unique role to play here in continuing to support this freedom movement, as you call it, in Iran; an obligation to support the protestors, to really give them moral support at the very least?

MR. NETANYAHU: I think it's clear that the United States, the people of the United States, the president of the United States, free people everywhere, decent people everywhere are amazed at the, at the, at the desire of the people there to--and their willingness to stand up for their rights. I cannot, as I said, tell you what is going to happen. I'll tell you what I would do, what we all would do in the face of demonstrations. There is--as we speak, David, there's a demonstration right now outside my window, outside my office. Well, democracies act differently. They don't send armed agents of the regime to brutally mow down the demonstrators. I'll tell you what I did. I called in these demonstrators, they happen to be representatives of a non-Jewish minority in Israel, the Druze community, they have certain, certain protests about the financing of their municipalities. I called their leaders in.


MR. NETANYAHU: I talked to them. I said, "How can I help you?" That's what democratic leaders do, that's what democratic countries do.

MR. GREGORY: Let me, let...

MR. NETANYAHU: We've had thousands, hundreds of thousands demonstrate in Israel right and left, but that's how we behave, that's how you behave, and I have no doubt that everyone in the world is sympathetic to the desire of the Iranian people for freedom.

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about the nature of the Iranian threat. Mohamed ElBaradei, who, as you know, runs the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in an interview with the BBC on Wednesday the following: "The ultimate aim of Iran," he said, "as I understand it, is they want to be recognized as a major power in the Middle East. [Increasing their nuclear capability] is to them the road to get that recognition, to get that power and prestige. It is also an insurance policy against what they have heard in the past about regime change." My question, Prime Minister, what does all that's happening on the streets of Iran do, in your estimation, to the nature of the threat from Iran? Is this a game changer in some way?

MR. NETANYAHU: First of all, I, I don't subscribe to the view that Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons is a status symbol. It's not. These are people who are sending thousands and thousands of missiles to their terrorist proxies Hezbollah and Hamas with the specific instruction to bomb civilians in Israel. They're supporting terrorists in the world. This is not a status symbol. To have such a regime acquire nuclear weapons is to risk the fact that they might give it to terrorists or give terrorists a nuclear umbrella. That is a departure in the security of the Middle East and the world, certainly in the security of my country, and so I wouldn't treat the subject so lightly. Would a regime change be a game changer? A policy change would be a game changer.


MR. NETANYAHU: I suppose that goes along with--it's not just personnel that is, that is involved here.

MR. GREGORY: But what--but we may not have regime change here.

MR. NETANYAHU: It's policy.

MR. GREGORY: You may not have regime change if--even if there's not, is everything that's happened on the street, does it make Iran more or less likely to engage with the West over its nuclear program?

MR. NETANYAHU: I don't know. I think it's too early to say what'll transpire both in Iran and is--and on the international scene. As I said, I think something fundamental is taking place here. But I did speak to President Obama about the question of engagement before this happened, and he made it clear that engagement is not an end in itself, it's a means to an end. And the end has to be to prevent this regime from developing nuclear weapons capability, and he said he'd leave all options on the table. And I'd say if it was right before these demonstrations, well, it's doubly right now.

MR. GREGORY: Prime Minister, there's always been debate about whether, when it comes to the threat of a nuclear Iran, whether there's a Washington clock and a Jerusalem clock. And let me show you a book by David Sanger of The New York Times that he wrote called "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power." And in the course of his reporting for that book, he wrote this about Israel's plans: "Early in 2008, the Israeli government signaled that it might be preparing to take matters into its own hands." This is about Iran. "In a series of meetings, Israeli officials asked Washington for a new generation of powerful bunker-busters, far more capable of blowing up a deep underground plant than anything in Israel's arsenal of conventional weapons. They asked for refueling equipment that would allow their aircraft to reach Iran and return to Israel. And they asked for the right to fly over Iraq." My question, if there is not tangible progress toward defanging Iran as a potential nuclear power by the end of the year, do you, as a leader of Israel, go back to that planning that Israel had under way in 2008 against Iran?

MR. NETANYAHU: I can't confirm those assertions. I can say that Israel shares with the United States and with many, many countries--let me tell you, David, I think we shared with just about all the governments in the Middle East, I've talked to many of the leading European heads of governments and many others; we all don't want to see this regime acquire nuclear weapons, this regime that supports terrorists and calls for the annihilation of Israel and for the domination of the Middle East and beyond. I think this would be something that would endanger the peace of the world, not just the--my own country's security and the stability of the Middle East. It would spawn, for one thing, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Everybody understands that. So the Middle East could become a nuclear tinderbox.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. NETANYAHU: And that is something that is very--a very, very grave development.

MR. GREGORY: And there...

MR. NETANYAHU: I think stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons capability is not merely an interest of Israel. As I think the current, recent events--the current events now demonstrate, this is something of deep interest for all people who want peace and seek peace throughout the world.

MR. GREGORY: If the international community proves unable to stop Iran, is it your view that Israel will have to?

MR. NETANYAHU: It's my view that there's an American commitment to make sure that that doesn't happen, and I think I'd leave it at that.

MR. GREGORY: Right. But there is a precedent here. Israel, in 1981, took out a nuclear reactor in Iraq. Israel, in 2007, took out a nuclear reactor in Syria. There is precedent and a proclivity for Israel to take unilateral action if it deems it necessary for its security. That could be the case with regard to Iran, no?

MR. NETANYAHU: Well, I don't think I have to add to anything that I've said. We're--the Jewish people have been one of the oldest nations in the world. We've been around for 3500 years. We are threatened as no other people has been threatened. We've suffered pogroms, exiles, massacres and the greatest massacre of them all, the Holocaust. So obviously, Israel always reserves the right to defend itself.

MR. GREGORY: You have said--you said it to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine, talking about Iran, that it was a messianic and apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. The Obama administration argues that for the past eight years under President Bush there has been a hard line, calling it part of the axis of evil, and where has that hard line gotten America? Only emboldening Iran over that period of time. Is your hard line--is the U.S. hard line over the past eight years the wrong strategy to get Iran to change its behavior?

MR. NETANYAHU: I think that the, the president spoke to me quite explicitly about the great threat that Iran's development of nuclear weapons capability poses to the United States. I saw, in fact, a continuity, in that sense, of an assessment of the threat. But of course, as you say, the clock is ticking. The Iranian nuclear program is advancing. And so the, the problem that now faces the entire world is to, is to ask themselves a simple question: Can we allow this brutal regime that sees no inhibitions in how it treats its own citizens and its purported enemies abroad, can we allow such a regime to acquire nuclear weapons? And the answer that we hear from far and wide is no.

MR. GREGORY: Prime Minister, just about 20 seconds here before you go. There is concern within the Obama administration that as a political matter it may be difficult for you to survive and pursue peace with the Palestinians. Do you share that concern?

MR. NETANYAHU: Absolutely not. I, I gave a speech in which I gave out the winning formula for peace, which is a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as the state of the Jewish people. And these two elements of recognition of Israel as a state of the Jewish people and a demilitarized Palestinian state I think is something that all people who want peace should unite around. And I have to tell you, since giving that speech I've been delighted and heartened by the fantastic support across the Israeli political spectrum, really cutting across the political parties and political views. And I think that's very important, because people understand it's inherently fear. What I'm suggesting is that if we're asked to recognize the Palestinian state as the nation-state of the Palestinian people, then the Palestinians should recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, who've been deprived of a land of their own and of security for so long.

MR. GREGORY: All right. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, thanks so much for your time this morning.

MR. NETANYAHU: Thank you.

Reader Comments (4)

I found this statement by Netanyahu both revealing, and disappointing:

"And these two elements of recognition of Israel as a state of the Jewish people and a demilitarized Palestinian state I think is something that all people who want peace should unite around. And I have to tell you, since giving that speech I’ve been delighted and heartened by the fantastic support across the Israeli political spectrum, really cutting across the political parties and political views."

What about stopping the settlements? Dismantling the illegal ones? Stopping the construction of roads through Palestinian land? Some sort of recompense or at least recognition of Palestinians' rights to property from which they were disposessed in 1948?

No, just two concessions by the Palestinians. This is the whole plan of peace.

Oh, and look: it had "fantastic support" from Israelis all across the political spectrum.

I wonder if he even asked any Palestinians what they thought.

June 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCraig Smith

rights of property that they were disposessed from in 1948? who accepted a 2 state solution them, the Arabs or the Jews? Who was invaded by whom then, the jews by the arabs or vice versa? Finally, who disposessed them, certainly not the Jews! The invading Arab coumtries of which there were seven told them to leave lest they get massacred along with the Jews by the invading armies. Too bad they lost the war. What about the milliom Jews tossed out of the Arab countries as a result of the 1948 war, with only their shirts on their backs, having all their properties confiscated by the Arab Governments. Why are there mo Jewish refugees today, neither from the Arab middle east nor from Nazi Europe? Simple, because Israel absorbed them all. So, the Arabs are not paying for a Europeam crime, as their propoganda would have you believe, but an Arab crime, including the Mufti's collaboration with Hitler. Don't forget, there were no settlements, occupied territories, Arab refugees, or even an Israel then. The Arabs, with their vast terrain and oil wealth could have solved their refugee problem, which they created, just like Israel did long ago, but they wanted to keep the pot boiling and use their people's suffering as pawns against Israel to divert attention away from themselves and their corrupt regimes. Israel took out every last one of their 10,000 settlers and soldiers from Gaza and the northern west bank. Instead of peace, it brought them 7,000 rockets rained down upon their southern cities since then. So please do me a favor and don't blame it on the settlements. The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an oppurtunity for peace. Instead of building up Gaza's infrastructure for peace, they use it as a launching pad. There wou;dn't be a closure on Gaza if they would have behaved themselves. By the way, they are closed off from their Arab brothers in Egypt as well, something the Jews would never ever do to their own, so put the blame were it belongs.

June 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjacob feller

On the Contrary the settlements are an enhancement of any two state solution.

Any State worth supporting must protect and provide human rights to its minorities. Requiring a proposed new State in an area predominately Moslem to be totally Jew and Christian free defeats the purpose and plan for a peaceful solution. If the Moslem majority will not even abide by such a requirement they will not abide or respect this principle anywhere including Israel proper. Such an attitude of tolerance toward minorities while considered heretical in the Caliphate Moslem theology is the test that will determine if such a new state will provide peace or a step stone toward war. It is better too not support or permit the creation of another intolerant State that will not allow minorities in its midst. There are plenty of non-tolerant Moslem states they can go to if they so vehemently like to be slaves of such regimes.

June 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNorman Wand

Regarding the settlements, my objection is to ongoing spoliation of Palestinian land and property; I do not mean to propose that the solution is twin apartheid-states.

June 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commentercraig smith

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