MR. LAUER: Benjamin Netanyahu is the prime minister of Israel.
Mr. Prime Minister, it’s good to have you here. Good morning.
PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Good morning.
LAUER: Let me put that picture right back up, okay, the handshake between you and Mr. Abbas. Does it mean anything? Does it show any sign of progress? Or is that a long-overdue photo op?
PM NETANYAHU: Well, I think it’s long overdue, and I don’t think it’s just a photo op. I mean, since being installed as prime minister, which was about six months ago, I said, "Let’s meet and let’s talk peace. Let’s not talk about talking peace. Let’s just get together and do it." And I’m glad that President Obama hosted this meeting. And I think, with good will from all sides, we can get this thing going.
LAUER: But where do we stand? I mean, the president – you’re saying the right things. President Obama is saying the right things. He says it’s the time to act. There’s a window of opportunity. He’s going to send Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell back to the Middle East and try and build on this progress.
But the fact of the matter is, George Mitchell just returned from the Middle East and accomplished almost nothing. He didn’t get the Palestinians to agree to negotiate without preconditions. He didn’t get you to agree to dropping your insistence there could be no freeze of settlements. So where do we stand? What progress can we build on?
PM NETANYAHU: I think the crucial thing is preconditions. We can all pile on preconditions from here to infinity and we’ll waste another six months or another six years. I think the main point is to do exactly what we began doing yesterday – to get into a room and say, "Look, how do we get a real peace between Israel and the Palestinians? Why don’t we resolve our problems so we can give our children a better future?"
Now, mind you, I haven’t waited. We’ve been six months in office. We’ve removed hundreds of roadblocks, checkpoints, opened the Allenby Bridge so goods and services and people can come back and forth into the West Bank. The results are spectacular. The West Bank economy, according to the IMF, is growing at 7 percent. If we meet and talk, we can make it grow double-digit. And that is good for peace. It’s not a substitute –
LAUER: Your critics say this. You say that you’re willing to talk to the Palestinians without preconditions. But by refusing to freeze settlements on the West Bank, they say that that’s a hollow promise, that you know you have basically stopped peace talks before they can begin. How do you respond to that?
PM NETANYAHU: This is an amazing claim. We’ve been talking to the Palestinians from 1993, which is, what, 16 years, successive Israeli governments to successive Palestinian administrations. There’s never been this precondition of freezing settlements ever put up. It’s just been put up now artificially.
Now, look, I’m willing to make gestures to help the peace process.
LAUER: How big a gesture?
PM NETANYAHU: Well, we’ll get there very soon, I suppose. But I’ll tell you one thing I’m not willing to do. I can’t freeze life. There are a quarter of a million people there in these communities, which are called settlements. They’re really most of them bedroom suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They need schools. They need kindergartens. They need health clinics.
Mind you, the fate of the settlements will be determined in the negotiations, at the end of the negotiations. But you can’t determine it before the negotiations. So I think the sooner we get off this obstacle and get down to the business of forging the real peace, with the Palestinians recognizing the Jewish State of Israel and along for them a demilitarized state – that is, a state in which they can govern themselves with all the powers they need; absent those, it could threaten the State of Israel – I think that’s the winning formula for peace – a demilitarized state that recognizes the Jewish state.
LAUER: Does President Obama – blunt question – possess right now the clout and the power to move this process forward? Some have suggested that the weak economy in this country has weakened this president to the point where he has no clout.
PM NETANYAHU: Oh, I disagree. I think any president of the United States wields clout. Don’t sell short the United States of America and its presidents, including President Obama. Of course he has clout. Of course he commands respect.
I think also his speech to the Arab world was very important, because many in the Arab world will say if President Obama supports this process, if he would support an outcome or resolution that Mr. Abbas and myself would arrive at, that would have, I think, an important boost – it would give an important boost to a peace that we want.
And I think we can achieve it if we have on the other side a Sadat. You know, we got Sadat; we made peace. We got the late King Hussein; we made peace. I’ll never forget how he came to the Wye River conference from his death bed and he moved me to tears. We can make peace.
Now Mr. Abbas has to decide – Abu Mazen, the head of the Palestinian Authority – "Are you an Arafat or are you a Sadat? If you’re a Sadat, I will make peace with you."
LAUER: Real quickly – I want to end, and I’m sorry to cut short the time, but on Iran. You said that Iran is weaker than people think. You are convinced they are attempting to build nuclear weapons and you’ve said tougher sanctions are a way to prevent that. China and Russia have never been on board with those tougher sanctions.
The president tried yesterday to talk to the Chinese about that. It’s unclear if he made any progress. Absent China and Russia joining that move for tougher sanctions, if they continue to move down the road, Iran, and develop nuclear weapons, in your opinion, at what point do you go it alone? At what point do you strike?
PM NETANYAHU: I will say that I don’t deal in hypotheticals. Every country reserves the right to defend itself, and we’re no exception. But Iran’s acquisition or development of nuclear weapons is a threat to everyone. I mean, it’s the major terror- sponsoring state of our time, and it could give those nuclear weapons to terrorists or give them a nuclear umbrella, which will bring terrorism beyond our wildest dreams to levels that are unimaginable.
We just had a scare here in Manhattan. Just imagine terrorists with nuclear bombs. It makes this development so dangerous that it should not be merely Israel, but the entire world that unites to prevent this outcome.
And let me say one thing. I don’t know if they’ll pass it through the U.N., through the Security Council, but this is the time to act with what Hillary Clinton called crippling sanctions. And the Iranian regime is vulnerable. It’s economically vulnerable. It’s politically extremely vulnerable for a simple reason. The Iranian people hate it. They detest this medieval backward regime that is gunning them down, you know, they are choking in their blood on the sidewalks protesting for freedom.
This is the time to apply pressure against this criminal regime. And even if the U.N. Security Council can’t get its act together, the leading powers of the day can put enormous pressure on Iran, especially when it comes to imported petroleum products, what we call in simple language gasoline.
LAUER: Mr. Prime Minister, it’s good to have you in the studio. Good luck this week at the U.N.
PM NETANYAHU: Thank you, Matt. Good morning.
LAUER: A pleasure to see you.