NBC "Today" Interview with:
PM Benjamin Netanyahu
Tuesday, February 9, 1999

KATIE COURIC: Among the leaders who were at the king’s funeral was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Prime Minister, good morning. Thanks for joining us.


MS. COURIC: Yesterday was a remarkable gathering of world leaders, a stunning show of respect for King Hussein. What was it like to be there, from your perspective?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Very moving and very sad. This was a solemn occasion, but it had another quality to it; not only paying respects to a great man and a visionary leader and a champion of peace, but also, for us as Israelis, a moment of unity in the midst of strife. You know that we’re in the middle of an election. But I thought it was important to bring with me the leaders of the opposition, former Prime Ministers Shamir and Peres, to really put the point that our entire country supports this peace, this model peace, between Jordan and Israel.

And I think it’s a model peace because not only is it kept by both sides fully Jordan has been absolutely perfect in compliance but also because King Hussein suffused in the peace, just imbued it with a spirit, right from the top, that said, "I really mean it. I really mean reconciliation. Even if some people in Jordan haven’t yet made the transition, I have. And I expect all of you to do so." And that has made a profound impact in Israel and it’s affected every man, woman and child. And I really felt that I and my delegation represented the grief of the people of Israel that I believe was almost as deep as the grief of the people of Jordan.

MS. COURIC: Is that what made King Hussein such a skillful diplomat, that he was so empathetic, sincere and believable?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: I think so. I think also because he acted out what he believed. You know, when we had this horrific slaughter of young girls by a Jordanian soldier who went berserk, he came with me to the families, knelt beside them, to the bereaved families, the parents of these slain young girls, and he was crying and he talked to them. It was so genuine.

On another occasion, I met him secretly in London. The queen and he invited my wife and myself to a weekend, a discreet weekend in one of their homes in London. And we had an opportunity to have lunch, a very nice lunch. And then we walked out and he introduced me to his son, Hamzeh. And I knew that wasn’t an accident. And he said, "You know, I’d really like to meet your son." My oldest boy is now 7; then he was 5.

Well, nine months ago we were vacationing in Eilat, a southern resort in Israel, and he came over from Aqaba with his yacht and we were going to do some business. And he said, "No, no, first I’d like to meet your son." And my son asked me, "Daddy, is this the good Hussein or the bad Hussein?" He meant Saddam Hussein. And I said, "No, this is the good one." And he walked over to him sort of apprehensively, and they started to chat with one another. And the king put his hand on my son’s head, and a bond was made.

So a short time later, my oldest boy heard that Hussein had been critically ill and he was very moved, spent a whole day in his room painting with a get-well message. Hussein received it, sent me a letter, very impassioned, very moved, talking about his talent and his sentiment. And three weeks ago, when he came to Jordan for his last visit, just before he died, he picks up the phone and we had a very, very warm talk, also on the political questions. But he began that last phone conversation; he said, "How’s your son? Did he receive the gift that I sent him? And I was so deeply moved by the picture that he had sent me."

I think this tells you what this man was about. This is the secret of that funeral. This ability to empathize with a 7-year-old boy, with any person, is the secret, I think, of his greatness.

MS. COURIC: Speaking of his sons, King Abdullah how confident are you that he’ll follow his father’s lead? James Baker, former secretary of State, wrote recently about the strain on the Israeli-Jordanian relationship, saying, "In the absence of progress in the peace agreements, Jordan remains vulnerable to regional pressures and instability." How concerned are you about that?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Well, I think there will be progress in the peace talks. I think that there will be a movement towards Palestinian compliance; I’m sure as a result of the Israeli movement as well, because it’s an interwoven deal. When that happens, I suspect that we’ll see movement on other fronts as well.

But I think, beyond that, there is a much deeper interest, strategic interest, for the peace between Jordan and Israel. Jordan constitutes the country with the longest border that Israel has, closest to our population centers. So we have an abiding interest to have peace with Jordan and stability, to see stability in Jordan. And Jordan equally Jordan knows that Israel has no designs on Jordan, that it wants to see a safe and secure Jordan. We will have the peace. It will continue. I have no doubt about that.

MS. COURIC: In closing, Mr. Prime Minister, what are you willing to do? Elections are three months away. What will you do to push forward the peace process if you’re re-elected? Because some in your country have criticized you for not doing enough.

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Oh, I’m always criticized, so there’s nothing new there. But I think what yesterday afforded me in this very somber yet moving moment in Jordan, I think, at least for me, it gave me a commitment to a new beginning, to energize and accelerate our efforts, not only for peace with the Palestinians but peace with all our neighbors. I was a few meters away in one tent from Hafez Assad, the president of Syria, in another tent. And I think that after the election, we’ll sit together, one way or another, in the same tent.

MS. COURIC: Well, that’s news.

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: It’s a hope. It doesn’t depend only on me, but since I heard that same expression of hope coming from Syria, I’m eager to reciprocate it.

MS. COURIC: All right. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, thanks so much for talking with us after this very sad day. We really appreciate it.

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Thank you, Katie. Good morning.