Interview with Prime Minister Netanyahu
Turkish Daily News

September 3, 1998

ILNUR CEVIK- Mr. Prime Minister, do you believe the existence of the state of Israel is still being challenged by your neighbors and other Arab states?

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU- I don’t think it can be directly challenged by any of them. Some of them don’t want to challenge it because we have peace with Jordan and Egypt. With Syria and Lebanon we are in a quest for peace which will ultimately prove successful. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, I think Palestinian society is split between those who for this or that reason want peace with Israel and those who are unable to accept it and still agitate for destruction. That is our immediate circle. If there is a threat, it is an extensional threat that comes more from the outer ring from states like Iran and Iraq, who have declared their purpose to destroy Israel. They are massing their weapons to make good on that threat. Obviously we don’t sit idly by, and we make sure Israel can defend itself under all circumstances.

CEVIK- We are aware that Iran is a particular source of concern for the state of Israel. In the past you have launched preemptive strikes against Iraq to destroy the nuclear capabilities of that country. Is this option, the use of force, open to other circumstances?

NETANYAHU- We are concentrating our efforts on political action to stop the flow of lethal ballistic missiles and mass weapons technology to Iran. This is the crux of what we are doing. But obviously we have the means and the capacity to defend ourselves, and we hope everyone in the region understands we have that capacity.

CEVIK- Some people even in Israel say your attitude and actions have actually created obstacles for the peace process in the Middle East. Can you sincerely expect a revival of this process when new Jewish settlements are being built in the area?

NETANYAHU- This is a common perception among some circles, but it is wrong. My rise did not stop or paralyze the Oslo accords. The paralysis of the Oslo accords provided my rise to office. In fact we didn’t have peace. We had dozens of terrorists attacks, including suicide bombers who came from the Palestinian areas that we had been promised would be peaceful. They launched the deadliest terrorist campaign in Israel’s history. We lost 250 Israelis, and our people said: "This is not peace. Put security back into peace, otherwise peace is meaningless." That is exactly what we proceeded to do. Similarly the peace process with Syria had collapsed well before we came to office because of the explosion of terrorism. So the peace process was halted. The people of Israel said, "We are prepared to continue with it, providing we see security for Israel and reciprocity from the Arab side." This means Palestinian compliance to promises they made to us to fight terrorism. That is what we proceeded to do. When you change the terms of reference and people build up unrealistic expectations and refuse to face reality, and you are the one who comes and says, "Let’s give everyone a wake-up call," they don’t like it. They don’t like to receive wake-up calls. They tend to blame the person who makes the call. Have you ever slept at a hotel and been woken up by a wake-up call?

CEVIK- Yes, I have.

NETANYAHU- You didn’t like it, did you? This is the same case here. Israel gave the world a wake-up call, saying peace must mean peace for Israel. It cannot mean peace and terror coinciding. There is no meaning for such a peace. That is absurd, and we have worked laboriously to reduce the scourge of terrorism and to insist that the Palestinians keep their part. I believe that we are closer to an agreement now, although there are still some obstacles that remain. This time it will be a better agreement and a much more realistic agreement, one which an overwhelming majority of Israelis can support. I think this is the great advantage of our government. When we make an agreement, and all agreements necessarily involve some concessions, there is not only external peace but also internal peace across Israeli society.

CEVIK- How close are you to such an agreement?

NETANYAHU- We are close, but we cannot close the final stretch without a political decision on the part of the Palestinians to actually complete the deal, and so far I think they haven’t made that decision.

CEVIK- It seems one of the problems you face here is that while there are Palestinian extremists trying to sabotage peace moves, you also have radicals on the Israeli side doing this as well.

NETANYAHU- Well first of all they are not doing it through terror. I wouldn’t put them on an equal footing. But of course I have political resistance on my extreme right and sometimes on my not-so-extreme right, but that is not going to deter me. I said that as soon as I reach an agreement that will give security to Israel and compliance from the Palestinians, I will do it. I will not hesitate to bring it to the government and to the Knesset, our Parliament, and let the chips fall where they may. At the end of the day, you cannot make coalition politics and calculations here. The more I am in politics, the more I realize that what ultimately governs the fate of nations and determines the quality of leadership is the ability to take the stand on major things that is required. The public will follow suit. Those decisions of principle or the main policy decisions that emanate from conviction ultimately summon the public support that is much more important than coalition. This will be one of those cases. As soon as we arrive with an agreement that satisfies my concerns about Israel’s security, I won’t hesitate a minute to bring it before our Parliament.

CEVIK- Every time there is a terrorist attack you seal off the Palestinian settlements…

NETANYAHU- No, we didn’t. As a matter of fact, we have not sealed off the Palestinian areas for the last 13 months. Not one day of closure.

CEVIK- But Hebron was sealed off…

NETANYAHU- That was internally done. But the territories as a whole have not had a single day of complete closure for 13 months. In fact the Palestinian economy has been growing substantially, bringing down unemployment. The GDP is rising and for the first time, it will have real growth that will outstrip its former position before Oslo. The reason is our policy which has insisted on security, which in turn has reduced the number of terrorist incidents, therefore reducing the need for closure, thereby increasing the number of Palestinians working in Israeli cities, thereby raising the standard of living of the Palestinians. In effect security is not only good policy for Israel but it is also good policy for the Palestinians.

CEVIK- So you don’t think that when you take action against these regions, you do not seem to be making any real impact on the extremists, but you are alienating the moderate Palestinians.

NETANYAHU- That is why we do not take any unnecessary action. We do not use closure of Palestinian areas as an instrument of applying pressure to the Palestinian Authority. We only used this when security requirements really demanded it, and we have been very sparing in doing this. The number of closures dropped from 90 in 1996, and most of them were before we came to office, to 60 in 1997 and to zero in 1998. So there is a clear decline, while the economic indicators of the Palestinian economy have grown dramatically under this government. Just to give you an indication, in 1995, under the previous government, there were seven Palestinian trainees in economic, health and education training in Israel. Now there are 700 Palestinian trainees, which is a hundred times increase… This applies to all categories. The facts are seldom known. The New York Times has this motto: ‘News which is fit to print.’ I suspect this is news which is not fit to print. It does not fit the mold of a hard-line Israeli government that does not want to see any benefit or any comfort for the Palestinians. It is exactly the opposite. We are staunch free marketeers, and we believe that markets freely operating, or as close to freely operating as one can have, is the best way to ensure prosperity. That is true for us. What we are doing domestically in the Israeli marketplace and privatizing is a clear indication. It is also true with our relations with the Palestinians. We allow them to trade with each other between Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan. They are also trading with us.

CEVIK- Are you concerned that the Palestinians are not getting enough international support to beef themselves up?

NETANYAHU- Well they get plenty of international support. They get good political support.

CEVIK- I meant financial support.

NETANYAHU- I would say they get an abundance of international support, despite the gross violations of the Oslo accord, like failing to fight terrorism. That of course concerns me. At the same time they don’t get enough material support. That concerns me too. I would like to see careful and modulated political support for the Palestinians. Less generous and uncritical political support and more generous and forthcoming economic support for the Palestinians. That I think would be more equitable, and in fact sensible on the part of many countries in the world.

CEVIK- The status of Jerusalem, or at least the holy places of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, seems to be a sticking point in the future of the Middle East peace process. How do you propose to address this challenge?

NETANYAHU- We have a very clear policy. That policy is to keep the holy places absolutely free. Free in two senses. Freely operated by the respective religions, and free in the sense of unlimited access to worshippers. On Muslim holidays we have here [in Jerusalem] a quarter of a million worshippers. We never had that. The churches of course operate without any inhibition as well. This is the first time this has happened in Jerusalem in nearly 1,300 years. Jerusalem was occupied by one power or the other. The Crusaders were here; they tore down the synagogues and the mosques. After the Muslim invasion, they tore down the churches and the synagogues. I have to say that we got it from both ends. It is only under Israel in the last 30 years that the city was reunited, and we have this policy of freedom for all religions. As long as Jerusalem remains united under Israel, this will remain a fact, and the city will always remain united because this is the one cherished principle that has united Jewish people everywhere. Many non-Jewish friends also do not want to see the city redivided and a ‘Berlin Wall’ with barbed wire stuck in the middle of it. They want to see it as an open city accessible to all faiths, and this will remain our policy.

CEVIK- Of course there is this obstacle, that there is an Arab reality and that the Muslims in general say, ‘This is our holy place, and we cannot put it under Israeli authority.’

NETANYAHU- But the Muslim holy places are not run by Israel, they are run by the Wakif [Islamic foundation]. Muslim holy places are run by Muslim authorities and not by Israel. There is a difference between religious authority and political sovereignty. Jerusalem is the sovereign capital of Israel, but it has given absolute independence to the three great faiths forever.

CEVIK- There is talk that you are having some contacts or at least some feelers with Syria on prospects for negotiations. When do you think meaningful talks can start?

NETANYAHU- We have been trying to return to the Wye Plantation talks [negotiations held between Israel and Syria at a plantation outside Washington] for the last two years, but we have been unable to do so due to certain preconditions for resuming the talks which the Syrians put before us. So I am afraid I can’t report to you that we are about to return to the Wye Plantation talks. But we will continue to make these efforts in the hope that Syria will alter its position.

CEVIK- Before you became prime minster, when President Suleyman Demirel visited Israel, he attended a meeting in the outer chamber of the Knesset, where you made an interesting speech in which you said under your prime ministership, Israel and Turkey would be cooperating in a very close manner, and regarding Syria, you warned Damascus to be very careful. Within that perspective, where does Syria fit in?

NETANYAHU- Well, our relationship with Turkey is not directed against any country. It is directed to the benefit of the entire region. Look at the kind of world we are entering into. It is a world which has moved from relative stability since the two superpowers basically resolved their nuclear relations in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The world became very stable globally, and they had minor skirmishes which were always controlled. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union we have a very unstable world. We sometimes see impoverished countries with an $85 GDP per capita producing ballistic missiles and atomic warheads and threatening everyone in sight. This is becoming a very fluid and dangerous situation. Regimes could be toppled with the force of this intimidating power, or those weapons could be launched. Naturally states around the world are scrambling to find some sort of a security structure. In the absence of an East-West structure, the only sensible arrangements and frameworks are regional security arrangements that will try to induce stability where instability prevails. I think that is exactly the kind of relationship that Israel has with Turkey.

CEVIK- Is there room for third parties?

NETANYAHU- Well, I noted that Jordan sent observers to the most recent exercises our two countries held, and this was very much welcomed by both of us. In any case we are not directing this against any countries, but we are trying to create an axis of stable and responsible countries. It is not an accident that this relationship was initiated by two democracies in the Middle East with rather feisty politics. Although I do not speak Turkish, when I turn on Turkish television, I can occasionally identify a feisty debate when I see one. This is an important development. You are equally quite right that I continue to intensify the relationship to which I attach great importance. But this is a nonpartisan question in Israel. It was started with the previous Labor government, and it is not an issue of contention. In Israel, Turkey has wall-to-wall support.

CEVIK- …and what are the dimensions of this relationship with Turkey?

NETANYAHU- First of all it is economic. Our two countries are important economic forces in the region. Our trade is zooming to very large proportions. We want to move more into the area of joint ventures and investments, and I think that is happening too. So beyond our security relationship we have a tremendously important economic relationship, and we see how important that is precisely because of the instability that exists in the world. Those economies that expand trade and open up markets will survive and thrive, and those that try to constrain everything will not make it. Here we have two economies which in many ways encourage the private sector. Now they are encouraging economic activity with each other, which is another source of stability and strength which I attach much importance to, and in fact we are developing. By the way, I am the only Israeli that has not come to Turkey…

CEVIK- Are you planning to come to Turkey?

NETANYAHU- I plan to come to Turkey. I was planning to come, and the visit was canceled because of these emergencies we always have. But of course I would like to come. I am fascinated by Turkey. It is one of the most interesting countries in the world. I am somewhat familiar with its history and antiquity. I am a great aficionado of classical archeology, which Turkey has in great abundance. So of course I would like to come to Turkey at the earliest possible opportunity. I want to visit the museum in Istanbul where you have the stone tablet from biblical times that shows the water tunnel under Jerusalem where tunnellers digging from two different sides met. They inscribed a tablet where they met in the tunnel, and now that tablet resides in the museum in Istanbul. I really would like to see it.

CEVIK- …and what about the political dimension?

NETANYAHU- Well it transcends national politics. It is not an issue of contention in our politics for the simple reason that people admire Turkey. They think it is an important partner for Israel. So this is not an issue in Israel. I know in Turkey itself, you are wrestling with important decisions about the future of the country. We, of course, do not enter into that debate, but we think that the commitment Turkey made in the early part of this century to be a modern state is what distinguished Turkey to enable it to rise above some of its neighbors who did not make that transition. For example there is now a real and strong protest movement in Iran against attempts to take Iran back to the middle ages. The Iranian people, mostly women and youngsters, are reacting against this. They want their share of the good life. They want the ability to realize their own potential. You look at Turkey and Iran, and you see the differences. Turkey made a very bold decision earlier in the century to move to the modern world with clear steps. Iran didn’t make that decision. They decided to move in the opposite direction. Just look at the two societies and see the difference.

CEVIK- We are all aware that Turkey and Israel have increased their military cooperation significantly in recent years. How far are they prepared to go?

NETANYAHU- Well, I don’t know. We have a policy not to discuss military sales with any country. It is a very convenient policy which allows me to fend off questions such as this. But it is not a secret that we conduct joint exercises for the maintenance of peace, and presumably we shall continue to do so.

CEVIK- Some regional countries say Israel will not give Turkey technology that may be a threat to itself in the future if Turkey falls under an Islamist government. Do you have such concerns?

NETANYAHU- First of all we have great confidence in the stability and wisdom of Turkey’s course. We do not have the feeling that Turkey is about to change its direction. I did have an opportunity to speak about this to some leaders in Europe, and I candidly gave them my feeling that Europe, of all places, should have as a top priority to encourage and ensure Turkey’s resistance to forces that try to stamp out Western pluralism and democracy. They should not get the upper hand. I view that as something that ought to be in the interest of all democratic states. Nobody says this is easy to do, I understand that, but I want to emphasize that my view about maintaining Turkey’s current direction requires an understanding about the difficulties and predicaments that face Turkey. I have that understanding. We don’t see any problem in delivering technology to Turkey.

CEVIK- We know while you are enjoying these warm relations with Turkey, you do not want this to be against a third party and you do not want to get entangled in the Turkish-Greek disputes or the Cyprus problem.

NETANYAHU- Very much not.

CEVIK- However, it was the Greek foreign minister who objected to Turkish-Israeli relations, saying the two countries were the leading menaces in the region. What do you say to that?

NETANYAHU- Well, we have no quarrel with the Greeks, certainly not with Greece or with Cyprus. We do not engage ourselves in the conflicts of other states. We have enough of our own to take care of. But we obviously reserve the right to have a relationship with any state with which we think Israel should have a relationship. We have relations with Turkey, and we have excellent relations with Cyprus and Greece.

CEVIK- Are you concerned about the growing Russian presence on Cyprus?

NETANYAHU- We haven’t really focused on that. Right now we are more focused on the stability of the regime in Russia. We are looking into the future of the Russian economy, and frankly, the prospect that we might have an increase in immigration from Russia. That happened last time, and it was a great blessing for Israel. It boosted tremendously the intellectual resources of the country. It produced a great surge in our technological capacity. This is not to say I am inviting instability in Russia. Quite the contrary: We know that reverberations of this crisis could affect all our countries. If you ask me what I am concerned about today in Russia, it is not the Russia in Cyprus, but the Russia in Russia.

CEVIK- Thank you very much Mr. Prime Minister.