"I am doing what is vital for the State of Israel"

In a special interview with "Globes", Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Shelly Yachmovich would bring about a million unemployed, vows to break up cartels, and insists he is not interfering in the US election.

For several weeks, politicians have been looking for signs, and clutching at every statement, remark, or gesture, that might put an end to the uncertainty. All are tensely awaiting the pronouncement of the prime minister that will decide: austerity budget, or elections. But if anyone has formed the impression recently that Netanyahu has made up his mind, he should think again. The prime minister has devoted the past few days to preparations for his trip to the UN General Assembly this Thursday. "He is working almost 20 hours a day on the speech he will deliver in New York," an especially close source said. Until his return, on Sunday, no decisions will be made here; not security, not economic, and certainly not political.

At present, Netanyahu is playing poker and holding his cards close to his chest, telling members of Knesset that he wants stability, but, in an interview with "Globes", not ruling out the possibility of an early election.

Jewish year 5773 - elections or budget?

(Pleased with himself) "First of all, there will certainly be elections in 2013. Insofar as it depends on me, there will be a budget. But a responsible budget doesn't just depend on me, but also on the coalition partners. We are now clarifying the matter with them."

You have been clarifying for three months.

"It certainly is a long process. First of all, we had to expand the budget framework, and after that it is necessary to see whether there is willingness to pass a responsible budget."

The question is, how much will a responsible budget cost us, in benefits and promises to coalition members.

"I'm not going to go into the details of the discussions. I spoke of a responsible budget. We are running the economy in a very responsible way. The Israeli economy grew amid the most severe crisis of the past 80 years. It grew more than the countries of the West, and unemployment is lower than in the Western countries by a considerable margin. We grew in 2011, we have continued to grow at a rate close to 5% when the average in the euro block is minus one tenth."

It is impossible to dismiss lightly the blow that Netanyahu and the Likud party suffered from Kadima's entry into the government in May. Not only was the positive momentum that Likud was enjoying until then halted, the party's rating has even fallen. In private conversation, Netanyahu admits that the move was a mistake. On the record, he sounds different.

Don't you regret that you brought in Kadima and put off elections?

(Determined) "I don't regret it, because I exploited to the full the attempt to bring about a parliamentary maneuver that could make the changes that I should like to see here in the system of government, and lead to a responsible and serious solution to the problem of drafting the haredim, and to certain economic and social reforms that I think need to be made. Unfortunately, there was no similar desire on Kadima's part."

The move failed, so why shouldn't you announce early elections now?

"Today, there is at a least an expression of willingness in principle by the coalition partners to try perhaps to pass the budget, but in the end of course that will be tested individually, and in actions."

The minister of defense has declared that he will not be a party to a cut in the defense budget. That means that will it will be necessary to find the money from other sources. Does it mean that we will see higher taxes?

"I don't wish to comment on that. First and foremost, we have already dealt with taxation."

You have dealt with tax revenues, now you'll deal with spending.

"If there's anyone who hates to raise taxes, it's me. I have cut taxes more than any prime minister or minister of finance in Israel's history. Sometimes you have no choice but to raise taxes, but I think that we are doing this less than any other government, and we will continue that way. In any event, the taxation side has already been dealt with, the spending side is still to come; that will be the challenge of the next budget."

Will Shas be able to live with spending cuts?

"I suggest you talk to them. I won't go into details."

On Shelly Yachimovich: "Her outlook will create a million unemployed"

Whether or not he decides to bring forward the elections, according to polls in Israel, and according to "The New York Times", Netanyahu is the undisputed king, with no-one on the horizon who might challenge his status. If there are no changes between the left-wing and right-wing blocks, it will be Netanyahu who forms the next government. Even so, Netanyahu apparently feels threatened. When the name of Labor party chairman Shelly Yachimovich is mentioned, his rate of speech rises, his body tenses, and he becomes excited.

Whom will you appoint in your next term as your minister of finance? Is there a chance that it will be Shelly Yachimovich? Do you see her promoting your economic reforms?

"Ms. Yachimovich's outlook was tried in the last decade by several Western countries. They reached unemployment rates of 25%. In Israel, that would mean a million unemployed. I won’t adopt the policies of someone who will bring about a million unemployed, and that's what Yachimovich's policies would cause. These ideas are obsolete. I expect people in the press and media to read newspapers, to look at world media, and to see what is happening in the world. You can't ignore that."

Will you invite her to be a partner in your government?

(Angry) "I know what policy I believe in: a policy of economic responsibility while taking care of the needs of the citizens of Israel. We shall continue to nurture education, and we shall continue to reduce home prices. If I were to put some of these politicians in this chair and let them make the decisions, the economy would collapse, because they are good at one thing only: at raising government spending unendingly. That means unending tax rises, and it means mass unemployment and economic collapse. That is the outcome of the things they do."

On the cost of living: "Preventing competition will lead to bankruptcy

When Netanyahu is asked whom he wants to see as his finance minister, he does not rush to give credit to Yuval Steinitz, who has demonstrated such loyalty to him, and he does not take advantage of the opportunity to express his esteem. "I am not giving out jobs. We are working seriously and responsibly together with the minister of finance and with other government ministers. The true need is to continue to take care of the Israeli economy and preserve the jobs of the citizens of Israel."

The minister of finance has repeatedly told us in the past three years that it's really good to live here. So why are people going around with their heads down?

"Because they read the newspapers. Certain newspapers. I don't ignore people's feelings. There are problems."

What would you say to the owners and managers of the food companies who raise prices?

"That they should lower prices. But the important thing is to bring about greater competition. That is my world view, and it's very different from the populist views that are heard here, that want the opposite, that want to prevent competition, to fortify the rule of the big unions in basic services, and also to dole out money, all the time doling out growing government expenditure. That is the road to one thing: bankruptcy.

"We have a lot to do to improve competition. We still have to break up the cartels and monopolies which are the great problem still remaining in the Israeli economy. Among these cartels and monopolies are also the government's cartels, especially when it comes to housing, and I'm working on that too. There is a monopoly on land, a monopoly on planning, and that is what I am trying to change."

For three and a half years you have only been trying.

(Restrains himself from shouting) "I work very hard. Those who criticize me for housing prices should ask themselves why they oppose in the Knesset the reforms I put forward to simplify these processes. If they really wanted to contribute, then they would lend support, instead of just saying how the government can dole out money. I want a simple reform, a reform that will shorten all these procedures and not make them a burden. That's why I withdrew the new planning and construction bill that was discussed in the Knesset, and we will make another attempt to pass it after amendments and changes."

Land sales by the Israel Lands Administration?

"Certainly. To sell more and more land. Nevertheless, we have a stock of 80,000 apartments under construction in Israel. There has never been anything like that. Apart from in my first term, there has never been anything like it."

And the planning committees?

"The planning committees? They're the stopper committees. The main stopper is the district committees. They can torpedo any compromise and send things back into unending circles. This is just what I am trying to do. We are working on this. These are reforms that take years to carry out. Many years. But we mustn't stop working on them. That is what I am doing."

What are the next reforms that you plan to promote?

"In housing and food."

On Iran: "Even back in 2005 I promoted sanctions"

Yesterday, the Iranians declared that they were liable to launch a preemptive strike if they reached the conclusion that Israel was planning an attack on their nuclear installations. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, a brigadier general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said that Iran would not start a war, but that it could carry out a preemptive strike if it was sure that its enemies were in the final stages of preparation for an attack on it. That announcement should have been no surprise to Netanyahu. The chatter about a possible attack on Iran has never ceased, and has reached new levels, with his encouragement.

For his part, the prime minister refuses to respond to the announcement. "Let's say that I prefer not to comment on it," he says with a secretive smile.

In weighing up elections versus a budget, is there also a connection to Iran? If there are elections, does that not change the considerations concerning an attack?

"No. There is no connection to election timetables, here or anywhere else. I have been talking about Iran for fifteen years, a long time before other people talked about it, and sometimes they raised an eyebrow, but even in 2005, when I was minister of finance, I started moves for promoting sanctions through withdrawal of money from funds of states in the US for investment in Iran."

A good part of your speech in the UN this week, on Thursday afternoon, will relate to Iran. Obama has already declared that he will not lay down red lines for the Iranians as you demanded. What do you expect from the Americans now?

"I will say in the UN the things that I think I need to say as prime minister of Israel. I leave for the UN after Yom Kippur, immediately after the Ne'ilah closing service. I represent there all the citizens of Israel, and I shall take into account no consideration other than what I think is the most important thing: to ensure the security and future of the State of Israel."

Do you know what you will pray for on Yom Kippur?

(Smiling) "Certainly. But that is between a man and his maker."

And when will we know that we should pray not to be casualties? How will we know what is going to happen; will you warn us?

"I think that the State of Israel is in trustworthy hands. Defense is managed responsibly. We are not ignoring the great dangers facing us and the entire world, and we are ready to meet them in the best possible way."

Your pronouncements are becoming more and more extreme. Tzachi Hanegbi said in early September that the next 50 days would be fateful; Ephraim Halevy said in early August that the next twelve weeks were critical; and you told a US network that Iran was 6-7 months from developing a nuclear bomb.

"That's not what I said. I spoke about the completion of a certain stage of enrichment of fissile material, and I was very precise. I also take care to be very measured in my statements. I am not, however, responsible for the statements of others."

On his interference in the US elections: "It's baseless"

Israeli-US relations have reached an unprecedented nadir. Contrary to usual procedure, this time it looks as though the prime minister of Israel will not be granted a meeting with the US president during his visit to the UN General Assembly in New York. It's hard to understand the strategy guiding Netanyahu, that leads him to gross interference in the presidential election in the US, and not in favor of the candidate leading in the polls. You don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to understand that after he starred in the campaign of Republican candidate for the presidency Mitt Romney, if Obama is reelected, Netanyahu will have to deal with a strong president in his second and final term who will presumably be able to afford to do whatever he likes.

Fierce criticism has been leveled at you for your interference in the elections in the US.

"It's baseless. I am not interfering in the elections. I express my view as prime minister of Israel on the matters that are vital to the security of the State of Israel."

How does that square with the pictures of you that have featured in Romney's campaign? After all, he's a friend of yours, you could ask him not to use them.

(Defiantly) "There are picture of me in the Democrats' campaign and also in the Republicans' campaign."

The Jewish lobby AIPAC intervened in favor of Obama in order to balance your support for Romney.

"I'd rather not comment on that. After all, you don't want me to interfere in the election, do you?"

Netanyahu has been in office for three and a half years, and is likely to become the longest serving prime minister after David Ben-Gurion. But unlike former prime minister Ehud Barak, who pulled the IDF out of Lebanon, Ariel Sharon, who evacuated Gush Katif in Gaza, and Menachem Begin, who signed a historic peace treaty with Egypt, in two terms as prime minister, Netanyahu has still not left a significant personal mark on history.

What will history remember of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, what great thing? What achievement are you most proud of?

"For 50 years, the foreign exchange market here was completely controlled. There was tremendous concentration. That's how it was until I came along and as prime minister I opened up the foreign exchange market. I think the fact should also be mentioned that in the greatest economic crisis that the world has known in the past 100 years, we managed to preserve Israel's economy and maintain higher growth than almost any other country in the world. We maintained security, and succeeded in leading an international front against Iran's armament. At the same time, we protected the economy and still managed to give and to make progress. Not only has the economy grown, not only has unemployment remained low, not only have we generated jobs, we have also boosted social spending, which has not been done in any other country. It will be recalled that we gave free education from age 3, free dental care for children, came to new arrangements with the teachers and with higher education."

It's doubtful whether you will go down in history for that.

"If I start talking about the history books, you should start to worry. If anyone talks about how he will be recorded in the history books, start to suspect him. Those who want to do drastic things that have no foundation in reality, and are needed only to satisfy their personal wishes, set out on a dangerous path. I think that you must first of all think about what is vital for the country. What is vital for the Israeli economy is one clear, strong thing: to continue economic growth. What the history books will or won't say, that's far less important."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on September 24, 2012

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2012

Twitter Facebook Linkedin RSS Newsletters גלובס Israel Business Conference 2018