Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—or Bibi, as he’s known to just about everybody—is a polarizing figure. For some, he’s the ultimate defender of the state of Israel, a man who’s been willing to be unpopular to make the choices necessary to safeguard his vulnerable nation. For others, Bibi symbolizes everything that’s wrong with 21st century Israel: the state’s increasingly rightward turn and its never-ending conflict with the Palestinians. Bibi supporters chant “Bibi King of Israel” at rallies, while his enemies call him “crime minister.”
Bill Clinton said of Bibi: “you should never underestimate him.” Barack Obama called him “smart, canny, tough” but also said that they “did not share worldviews,” which is a bit of an understatement. Donald Trump called Netanyahu “the man that I did more for than any other person I dealt with” but then later, infamously, “f— him.”
But there’s one thing that everyone can agree on: Benjamin Netanyahu is the reigning master of Israeli politics.
Despite being ousted just over a year ago, Bibi is back, and is now on the cusp of his third stint as prime minister of Israel.
Why is Benjamin Netanyahu the man that Israelis just can’t quit? And what does it mean for Israel that he's attempting to form a government with some of the most far-right parties in the country—parties that, until recently, were at the very fringes of Israeli politics?
I spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu on the eve of his return to power and on the occasion of the publication of his book, Bibi: My Story, an autobiography about his evolution from soldier to statesman. We only had an hour together—he squeezed this in between coalition talks—so there were lots of things we couldn’t get to. But we talked about why he’s been elected for a third time; how he draws moral lines as a leader; Trump’s dinner with Kanye; the prospect of peace with the Palestinians; the Abraham Accords and if Saudi Arabia could be next; China; his message to Jews in the West facing antisemitism; and how he plans to uphold Israel’s delicate balance between Judaism and democracy as he steps in to lead his country once more.
I highly recommend listening to the conversation, but a rush transcript follows just below.
Bari Weiss: Prime Minister Netanyahu, thank you so much for being here.
Benjamin Netanyahu: My pleasure, Bari. It’s good to be with you.
BW: I want to open this conversation on July 4, 1976. On that day nearly 50 years ago, Israel carried out a stunning mission at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda. A week earlier, a few terrorists, four of them, had hijacked a flight of 248 passengers that were headed from Tel Aviv to Paris. They landed the plane in Entebbe and held the passengers hostage, separating the Israelis out from everyone else, while demanding the release of 53 Palestinian terrorists, many of whom were hardened murderers in Israeli prisons. Their terms were clear. If Israel refused, the hijackers promised to kill the Israeli passengers.
After a week of planning, Israel’s most elite unit, Sayeret Matkal, carried out a mission to rescue those hostages. And miraculously, almost all of the hostages were rescued alive. The New York Times called it an operation with “no precedent in military history.” Israel lost one soldier in that operation, a 30-year-old unit commander named Yoni Netanyahu. Now, I grew up, like so many young Jews, learning the story of Yoni, reading books about him, his letters, and visiting his grave at Israel’s military cemetery.
But Yoni was also your older brother. And it’s hard not to see this moment as your origin story. In your new autobiography, that is how you open the book and how you write about it—as a catalyst for the rest of your life and everything that would follow. So I wanted to ask you, how did this nightmarish day shape your view of Israel, of the fate of the Jewish people, and of the role that you wanted to play in both of those things?
BN: Well, it's changed my life and steered it to its present course. I had no intention of entering political life or even public life.
In the course of that day, we heard a newscast which said that Israeli commandos had rescued the hostages and were making their way back to Israel. We were overjoyed. But something marred my joy, because the newscast said that one officer had been killed. I said, “what are they saying, officer?” They don’t say officer. They usually say one soldier was killed. I immediately picked up the atlas in my bookshelf and looked at the distance to Entebbe––you didn't have Google in those days––so I computed it very quickly: 2,000 kilometers. Three or four Hercules planes, so 200 men. A quarter would be officers because they'd fight to get on such a mission. The odds were one to four.
We had faced worse odds before because Yoni and I, and my younger brother Ido actually, had served in this tiny unit and we often had to be separated on missions. I always calculated the odds; one to four, so not too bad. Yet I couldn't resist, so I called my brother, and I said, “Is Yoni back?” I didn't even ask, did Yoni command that? There was no question about it. They would be our special elite unit, which is a kind of a Delta Force, Navy SEALs, and Green Berets merged together and distilled. He said, “no, he's not yet back.” I called him a few hours later and asked, “is he back,” and he said, “no he’s not back, but I sense that something is wrong.” Then a few hours later he called me and I said to my wife, “that's Ido calling to tell me that Yoni had been killed.” And that's what Ido told me. There was this indescribable silence of agony on both sides of the line.
The only thing I could think of at that point was that I didn't want the news to reach my parents through the media. My father was teaching at Cornell University at that time, and I was in Boston, so I made my way through seven hours of indescribable anguish to Ithaca, New York. I walked up the path to my parents house. There was a big glazed window in the front of the house, and I could see my father marching back and forth, his hands clasped behind his back in his typical thoughtful ruminations. All of a sudden, he looked at me. He saw me and he said, with a look of surprise, “Bibi, what are you doing here?” Then he saw my face and he understood immediately. He let out a cry like a wounded animal, and then I heard my mother scream. That was actually worse than hearing about Yoni’s death; it was like a second death.
In the week of the Shiva—the mourning period—I had lost my sense of taste. I didn't know if I could live. I didn't know how I would live, and I thought that my life in many ways had ended as I knew it. And it did. But in the course of the Shiva, facing inconsolable grief, two things happened. The first was that people started giving us letters that Yoni had written to them over the years, and we could see that his story came to life through these letters. The first one was written when he was a homesick, 17-year-old Israeli teenager in the United States and the last one was written literally days before his fall in Entebbe. We immediately set about to put these letters into a book, which has endured for 45 years.
Yoni was a remarkable person. He didn't have to die to become a legend. He was a legend in his lifetime. For those who knew him and those who served under his command, he was a poet warrior who didn't want to be a warrior. He really thought of his life, and ultimately his death, as a service to the nation, to protect the one and only Jewish state because history wouldn't give us another chance.
How did I extricate myself from this? I said that two things had gotten me out of this impossible abyss. The other one was that Yoni never believed that he was just fighting terrorism militarily. He thought it was a civilizational battle between barbarians and the forces of freedom and human rights. I thought that we had to mobilize the free world to adopt a different attitude towards terrorists, a different moral attitude to puncture their various lies—that they were fighting for human rights while they were trampling them and blowing up babies––to fight against the terrorist states that stood behind them, because international terrorism without terrorist states is basically impotent.
It took me a few years to do this through an organization that we put together in his name that swept from public policy to politics or rather to diplomacy and from there into politics. And there I am, still in the messy bog of politics to pursue policy. This was a long answer to a short question, but Yoni’s death changed my life and directed me to the purpose that he gave his life to, which was to secure the prosperity, security, and permanence of the one and only Jewish state.
BW: Supporters and critics of yours describe you the same way, which is having a real sense not just of duty but really of destiny in your service to Israel. In a way, you view yourself as the leader that can save the Jewish state and therefore the Jewish people. There's a line in the introduction to your book where you talk about how you wish to be remembered. It's a simple and short line. You say, “that I helped secure the life of the Jewish state and its future.” But the whole idea behind Zionism—the political movement for Jewish self-determination, Jews being able to live in their own land, not dependent on anyone else, and able to protect themselves—is that the Jews no longer need to be saved. Who do you see Israel as needing to be saved from right now and do you imagine a day when Israel or the Jewish people will ever not need to be saved?
BN: I think life is a constant battle and the life of nations is no different. Nations come; nations go. Civilizations rise and civilizations fall. The Jewish people have broken the so-called iron laws of history. There was a great Italian philosopher, in the 16th century, who said that all nations are born, they flower, then they wilt, and then they die. You can't escape it. Well, the Jewish people have escaped that. We died 100 deaths and we came back to life.
BW: The Jews are the ever-dying people.
BN: Well, we decided to stop dying. The birth of Zionism said that the way to rescue the Jewish people from the final death, which our modern Moses—Theodor Herzl—saw very clearly 120 years ago, he said we'd be destroyed if we don't have a way to save the Jews from the fires of violent antisemitism. We would die and we would be erased. My father, 33 years after Herzel in 1933, at all of 23 years old, said we are facing a Holocaust. That's his word. The Holocaust of Hitlerism, which would destroy the Jewish people. The only way to save the Jewish people, to save the Jewish future, was to have a Jewish state which would be a haven for the millions that would otherwise be trapped in Europe. He devoted his life, before my brother fell in Entebbe, to found the Jewish state.
But once it was founded, it was still going to be challenged because Israel is the one country that is openly targeted for destruction. First by the Arab world—which happily has changed, and I'm glad I had a certain part in that—but also now by non-Arab Iran, which openly declares its goal of annihilating the state of Israel off the face of the Earth. If you look at it, what has changed in Jewish history with the rise of Israel is not that the forces that wish to annihilate us have been eliminated. They keep rising, falling, changing shape and so on. It’s that we can fight them, that we can defend ourselves finally against these forces in ways that were unimaginable a century ago. If you said a century ago that the Jewish state would be considered the eighth power in the world and that we would have an army almost second to none—sometimes in prowess and certainly in sophistication—people would have laughed. Jewish soldiers? A Jewish army? When Herzl suggested this, people thought him crazy. But he wasn't crazy; he was a visionary. It's left for our generation, for my generation, to secure that future. You ask, will it be continuous? The answer is yes. Unless you reach the end of days and the coming of the Messiah, which I'm not sure is going to happen next Wednesday.
BW: Let's get into politics. I’m talking to you between meetings where you're forming a coalition government, which doesn't exactly seem like a cakewalk in Israel. But let's go back to the summer of 2021 for a moment, when you were ousted for the first time in twelve years. People thought you were done. Your ousting spawned 10,000 op-eds about how finally change had come to Israel, about how finally there was going to be this so-called unity government, a diverse coalition of misfits that replaced you and the Likud Party's twelve years at the helm. That unity government included Yair Lapid, center left, joined together with Naftali Bennett, center right. They were sharing power and working together with the first Arab-Israeli party to ever serve in government. And yet, despite all of those op-eds, despite all of those sunny takes, here we are a year later. Why did it fail and why are you back again for a third term?
BN: Because it wasn't a unity government. It was a disunity government. In fact, they barred the majority of the Jewish citizens of Israel from the government. They made an alliance, believe it or not, with the Islamic Brotherhood, which is banned throughout the Middle East, except in Turkey and Qatar, and basically believes in the dismantling of the Jewish state. To achieve power, they gave power to a party that wants to see the end of the Jewish state as we know it, that supports terrorists openly. It’s incredible. I think you worked for the New York Times at one time, didn't you Bari?
BW: I did.
BN: Well, the joke sometimes is that they write all the news that fits. Okay. But, of course, the fact that I just described didn't fit because this great unity government with the Muslim Brotherhood that basically echoed the chants in Iran, death to Israel, death to America, death by political means, sometimes by violent means, that doesn't wash. That's why it collapsed, because it wasn't merely a ragtag group of these various parties. They were banding together for the purpose of achieving power by itself and had no common thread. The worse thing, and this is what eventually brought their downfall, was that they made common cause with political parties who want to see the end of Israel. And, ultimately, that doesn't wash. So that's why it fell. The reason we came back is because the overwhelming majority of Israelis—and by the way, that includes Arab-Israelis, too, quite a few of my supporters come from the Arab sector because my government actually helped them in ways that no one ever did before—know that we turned Israel into a global force of innovation.
You know, I'll tell you this, this is an anecdote. I didn't put it in my book. I should have, maybe in the next installment. When you're in opposition, you can actually get out of your cage, you can actually walk. So I do these daily walks. It’s very good: You exercise more, you eat less. Opposition isn’t that bad. Anyway, during these walks, people would come up to me—Arab citizens, Jewish citizens—and they’d say, “Bibi, with you life was better. It was more secure; it was more prosperous. Israel's stature in the world was much higher. When are you going to end this thing? Help us get rid of this so-called unity government, this disunity, dysfunctional government. Come back.” I thought that looked pretty promising, pretty enthusiastic. Would it show up in the polls? Well, all I can say is I am grateful to this outgoing government, because they gave me something that I wouldn't have had otherwise: a year to write my book. I'm forever grateful and delighted that they gave me that. But it wasn't a unity government. It was a disunity government with the Muslim Brotherhood.
BW: Ok, so that's your rap against the previous coalition. I want to get to what people are saying your government will look like, which has different kinds of landmines. First, you served as prime minister, for those who are unaware of your political history, from 1996 to 1999 and then again from 2009 to 2021. That is fifteen years of leadership, longer than American law would grant any president. What is going to be different this time? What is the vision that you have for this term and what did you not accomplish in those fifteen years in power that you want to accomplish now?
BN: Well, the first thing is, what is the mission that has guided me? I said to you at the beginning of our talk that it’s to achieve the prosperity, security and permanence of the State of Israel. My belief was that Israel has to be very powerful. It's not enough to be moral. It's not enough to be just. It's not enough to be liked. It doesn't even make a difference. If you're weak, you don't survive in our area. By the way, beyond our area, you can see that you can be devoured by aggressive forces that gobble up nations or conquer them or destroy them. So for Israel to be strong, you need a strong army. There is one problem with that conception. Ben-Gurion, the first great prime minister of Israel, believed we needed an army; he helped found the Israeli army, without which we wouldn't be here. He also declared the state, another act of tremendous leadership at the time when people opposed that. But once we had the army, our neighbors also had armies, and they got stronger and we got stronger. Except that we need F-35s, we need submarines, we need drones, we need cyber, we need intelligence. These things all have one characteristic: they cost money, a lot of money. How are we going to get the money to support our army?
I was a free marketeer by inclination, but I became a rabid free marketeer in my terms as Prime Minister and especially as Finance Minister, I served a stint in that role as well. I had to create a strong free market economy to sustain the military; I had to lead a free market revolution. Israel is now a different country. It's one that is fundamentally different from the semi-socialist country that I inherited when I came into power. I had to turn Israel to a free market economy, which ultimately, by the way, cost me politically.You say people eulogized me? They eulogized me many times, especially after I conducted these reforms, which basically shrunk me to 10% of the Knesset. I was dead. I was politically dead. I've come back from political death.
BW: You're like a cat on the streets of Jerusalem. You're going to have like nine more lives.
BN: Not a cat. Many cats. I nearly died a few times when I was a soldier in a special unit. I was shot at in a rescue of another airplane before Entebbe. I nearly drowned in a firefight in the Suez Canal during the war of attrition. I nearly ran my jeep into a phantom jet taking off and wasn't put in jail for that––should have been, but wasn't. I faced physical death several times. I nearly froze to death on Mount Hermon on the Syrian side, coming back from a clandestine operation. I was bitten by a yellow scorpion. You name it. But, people have survived military death, and they've survived political death. People have come back from political death once. Churchill is a good example. Rabin is a good example. Ben-Gurion is a very good example, and there are many others you can find. But somebody slipped me a note the other day that said, “how many people have come back, how many leaders have come back from political death, not once, but twice?” The answer is in the last 75 years, no one has.
I've come back. The question is, what am I coming back for? When I followed the vision of empowering Israel economically and militarily, I also empowered it diplomatically by necessity, because people are attracted to the strong. The strong can be moral or the strong can be immoral. It's not important. They’re attracted to strength. Martin Luther King said the arc of history bends toward justice. Well, it's a brittle arc and it can break under the pounding blows of the worst aggressors and tyrants of history. So that's not guaranteed. It has to be a strong arc. To be a strong arc, you have to be continually strong. I made Israel strong. As a result, I made peace with Arab countries that nobody believed we could make peace with. We made four peace treaties with four Arab countries. If you ask, what is my goal now? The first thing is to prevent Iran from annihilating us. Number one, that's simple. The second is to expand the circle of peace beyond our imagination. Saudi Arabia would be a tremendous achievement, to have peace with them, because it would effectively end the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Remember, the Palestinians are one to two percent of the Arab world, but they’re the tail that's wagging the Arab body. I'll get there, too, but I think that it'll be easier to get there if you end the Arab-Israeli conflict and leave that one to two percent. Although, if they're willing to make peace now, I'll make peace with them now. But it has to be a peace we can live with. That's number two. Number three is to continue to make Israel a light unto the nations. It's the quintessential innovation nation on earth. You're using your cell phone? Half of it is software made in Israel. Using your Waze satellite guidance? It's made in Israel. You’re using drugs and cures that are made in Israel. You're desalinating or you're using energy in a different way? A lot of that is made in Israel, and there is much more to do. I have concrete plans on that. If you want, I'll give you the other seven items on my list. But let's end with the three.
BW: Despite your reelection––despite the anecdotes of people approaching you on your long walks, saying, “Bibi. We miss you.”––as you well know, you're a polarizing figure. One of the things you're often criticized for is being a strongman and embracing a vision of strongman politics. What do you say to that criticism?
BN: I am a 19th-century democrat, so I introduced that into the Likud. The other parties in Israel are not democratic. Yair Lapid does not have primaries. He appoints whoever he wants. The same is true of Avigdor Lieberman. All the other parties, essentially, are chosen by their party leader, who's an absolute autocrat. He fires people, he changes the lists and so on. I put myself up for election every time, every time, and I win through elections that were never contested. No one has ever claimed one bit of any false elections. I'm so studious about it. It's ridiculous, beyond belief; you cannot imagine. My party members are also elected by primaries that I installed. 130,000, probably by the next election it’ll be 150,000, registered Likud voters vote. I believe in democracy, not only within my own party, but also in the public. My views of democracy are informed by the basic texts of American democracy. I read the Federalist Papers, all 80 of them. I'm a Hamiltonian in many ways, but also a Madisonian. And these two basically set the ground rules. John Locke and Montesquieu are my heroes because I think there have to be checks and balances.
You do not have a proper democracy by having self-chosen moral people who are above the public, above national interests. That's ridiculous. If you want to look at an instance in history where you had exceptional people who were above the plebeians, look at the founding fathers of the United States. Geniuses, one after the other. But if you told them the way you're going to secure democracy is by giving the power to the anointed few who will decide for the unwashed many? They’d say that's ridiculous. But that's a view of democracy that is penetrating Western democracies and is very, very dangerous. It's not going to sustain them. I'm the opposite of a strongman. I believe in democracy, obviously, in the balance of between the three branches of government but also in a basic bill of rights. You can have a majority, but you can't decapitate all redheaded people, and neither can the courts say that you can decapitate all redheaded people. There has to be a balance between the three branches of government. That balance has been in many ways impaired in Israel by the rise of unchecked judicial power. Correcting it is not destroying democracy, it's protecting it. I'm often portrayed as this boorish strongman…
BW: You're grouped with people like Erdogan. I've read probably 100 articles that group you in with authoritarian leaders…
BN: Yeah, that's childish. I always put myself to elections. I have never challenged an election. Look, Erdogan's best friend for several years was Barack Obama. They were close buddies. I think that changed after Erdogan threw more journalists in jail and basically turned Turkey into a less than stellar democracy. Our relations have improved. He used to call me Hitler every 6 hours . . .
BW: Now it's only every 12?
BN: No, we actually had a friendly conversation the other day, and I'm very happy with that. I think it's important. Not because I necessarily approve of everything that Erdogan does, I don't. But—just as Barack Obama had good relations with Turkey, and just as President Biden meets with the leaders of China or the leaders of other countries in our region who are not exactly Luxembourg democracies—that's what foreign policy does. It's a combination of interest and values, and you balance them. To describe me as this boorish, anti-democratic strongman, when I'm actually a 19th-century democrat, don't put me in that bind. I'm probably more versed, or equally versed, in the basic texts of modern democracy than any of the governing leaders of Western democracies today. I'd say I’m equally versed as the best of them.
BW: Let's turn to the current government that you're trying to put together. Israeli politics is all about forming coalitions. We talked about how the last coalition government was hailed as this unity government, but you saw it as a disunity government that failed quickly because it embraced the United Arab List, a party that you describe as a Muslim Brotherhood party. I want to talk about why you think the government that you're currently forming won't be subjected to a similar fate from the opposite side.
Your new coalition will include two far-right, fringe parties that want Israel to annex the West Bank and to expel Israeli Arab citizens of Israel who “don't support Israel.”
One of the politicians that you're forming a coalition with is a man called Itamar Ben-Gvir. Ben-Gvir was a member of a political party that the U.S. and Israel both deemed a terrorist organization and was eventually outlawed by Israel. The Israeli army, which has mandatory military service, would not let this man serve because he had earned such a name for himself for his far-right associations as a teenager. Most alarmingly, this is a man who for many years had hanging in his home a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, the infamous Jewish terrorist who murdered 29 Palestinian Muslim worshipers in 1994 as they were praying in a mosque.
I want to ask you about lines. Do the ends justify the means here? I understand from a political realist perspective that you probably can't form a coalition without some of these characters and parties. But you mentioned before that it would be anti-democratic to support someone that says we need to exterminate all redheads. At what point do some of the ideas embraced by some of these people like Ben-Gvir, who is going to have power in your coalition, get too close to that line or cross it?
BN: First of all, his eligibility to be a coalition member and a minister was determined by none other than the Supreme Court, and they gave him complete clearance. That has to be understood. If they didn't, he wouldn't be here. That's the first point. The second point is the policy. The main policy or the overriding policy of the government is determined by the Likud and frankly, by me. I think I have more than a modest influence on it.
I've been prime minister for 15 years, the longest serving prime minister of Israel.
I’ve often heard these doom projections, but none of them materialized. I maintained Israel's democratic nature. I maintained Israel's traditions. This Israel is not going to be governed by Talmudic law. We're not going to ban LGBT forums. As you know, my view on that is sharply different, to put it mildly. We're going to remain a country of laws. I govern through the principles that I believe in. Now, the Israeli system is different than the one in the United States. Even in the United States, you could say the Democratic Party is governed by the radical fringe. No, it's not. It's not.
BW: Well, no, but I think that supporters of Israel are right to be concerned that the Squad, for example, is kind of the tail that's wagging the dog. I think even you might argue that the prevailing political winds in the Democratic Party are with that fringe. But the reason I'm asking you about these parties is not because I'm a fan of purity politics. I'm really not. I think it's very important when people who have radically different views find a way to work together. I think that one of the things that's holding America back right now is our inability to do that. I'm asking you as one of the most powerful, long-lasting statesmen on the world stage overseeing a country in one of the most hostile neighborhoods in the world, what you think is appropriate to compromise in order to hold power for the sake of doing what you think is best for the nation? How do you balance your principles, which I presume include opposing racism and terrorism, with political realism?
BN: Nobody gets a break for terrorism. If you are a Jew and you commit a terrorist act, you'll be punished and should be punished exactly like anyone else. Nobody cares. Terrorism is defined and criminality should be defined by the nature of the act, not by the nature of the perpetrator. I believe that because that's where I come from. My father was a great historian and he had very clear views about the coexistence, as he called it, between the son of Nazareth, the son of Ishmael, and my own son, which means the Jews. I believe in that and fostered equal opportunity, which I think is a complement to equal rights. That's not going to change—it's very strong. That's where you draw the line internally on that.
You draw the line externally on things that, for example, when we fight terrorists who shoot from crowded civilian areas in Gaza, you target the terrorists. You don't give them immunity just because sometimes there's collateral damage, but you try to minimize that and sometimes at great cost. We don't adopt lawlessness. We don't adopt the prohibition of rights to people who deserve it under Israeli law. And Israeli law is not going to change in that regard. It's not going to happen. I'm not going to let it happen. If I had to draw the lines right now, you'd need another two hours. But that's fine. If you want it, I'll be happy to provide it.
BW: I would love to have it. But apparently you have to form a government.
BN: I have a very clear worldview, and people know it and respect it. Also, remember that it's not merely that we are joining them; they're being joined to us. We form the largest party in this coalition, and I'm not about to give up. People said you're going to give up the Defense Department to one of these smaller parties. They were very worried about it. And I said that's not going to happen. They said we're not going to form a government if it doesn't happen. Well, we are forming a government, and it's not going to happen. That's a red line: defense is in our hands. Defense is not merely what you think it is. It's not merely preventing incoming missiles. It's also deciding on policies that could be quite inflammatory. I'm trying to avoid that.
BW: Let's talk a little bit about where Israel sits on the map. Americans polled constantly say that one of the most important issues to them is the border. And our southern border, which is the one people worry about, is with Mexico. Having Mexico as our neighbor is a pretty good situation. Israel shares a border with Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Egypt and is within driving distance from Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Some of these countries are engaged in civil war, some of them have been willing to use chemical weapons on their own citizens, and some of them, as part of their reason for being, call for the destruction of the State of Israel. How should an American audience think about the border situation that you face? How big a role does it play in the lives of everyday Israelis and is it the reason that you're back in office?
BN: Bari, the width of Israel and its greater formation that includes Judea and Samaria is roughly the width of the Washington Beltway. It's a little more. Not much more. So it's a tiny country surrounded by what used to be enemies from every side. It could be conquered, it could be sliced in half in a few hours and finished. Miraculously, we were able to defend ourselves with the courage of our soldiers, like my fallen brother and many, many others. We've been able to push back our would-be destroyers.
The more important thing is that we've been able to make peace with them. We've been able to make peace with Egypt and Jordan. That was first done by Menachem Begin of the Likud with the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin with King Hussein of Jordan. For 25 years, we could not make peace with any of our other neighbors, but as Iranian power rose and its quest for nuclear weapons surfaced, and as Israel's power rose and our ability to be viewed, we changed the perception of Arab leaders towards Israel. They no longer viewed us as their enemy but as their ally—I would say their indispensable ally—joining them in fending off the Iranian threat, which is common to both of us. The second is as a potential source of tremendous innovation, technology, water, energy, medicine, business, everything. They saw that as something that could better the lives of their citizens. So for both reasons, we were able to, after a quarter-of-a-century of paralysis, breakout into the Arab world. You have to see this. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are flying over the skies of Saudi Arabia to Abu Dhabi and to Bahrain and to Dubai. Arabs and Israelis are dancing in the streets there. There's, believe it or not, a Cafe Bibi in Dubai, which I intend to visit. My first trip, I decided, will be to the United Arab Emirates, as a signal of my seriousness to expanding the peace.
The border situation became good because it’s now not a circle of war but, with the exception of Lebanon and Syria, a circle of peace. We have peace with Egypt on our southern border, peace with—or a de facto non-belligerence with—Saudi Arabia on our eastern border, and a real peace with Jordan. No peace with Syria, no peace with Lebanon, both of which are basically supported by Iran. We still have a way to go, but I think we're getting there.
You must understand how tiny Israel is. It's basically about two-tenths of one percent of America's size. It's a tiny country, a little bigger than Rhode Island. New Jersey is my favorite state because it's roughly the size of Israel. And it’s surrounded by hundreds of millions of formerly hostile people and now the hostile power of Iran that seeks our annihilation. Obviously, security is uppermost in people's minds. I suppose people vote for me time and time again because they know that I'll protect Israel. They know that I don't squander lives. I've lost a person who was so dear to me and to my parents. I saw what they went through, and I think of the mothers of Israel who lose their fallen sons and daughters. I'm not an adventurer. I use force when necessary, but I use it judiciously because I know the cost of war. I've been through war. I've been through wars and battles, and I've lost loved ones.
When I was a young soldier in my unit, one of the first things that happened to me was that my close comrade, my fellow soldier, died in my arms. He died in my arms on the way to the hospital from a mortar shell that exploded in his face. Thirty years later, when I was prime minister, I went to see his family in Be’er Sheva. His mother opened the door for me and showed me his room. She hadn't changed anything in those 30 years, and her life was forever changed and really destroyed.
I am absolutely committed to protecting my country, but I'm not gung-ho about it. The decade that I've just finished as prime minister was, by the military's own statistics, the most peaceful in Israel's history internally, even though we had an outbreak. Fewer people were killed in those years than at any other time in Israel's history. That's, again, contrary to the news that doesn't fit, so people don't write it. But that's a fact. The reason that's the case is because people know that I have clear guidelines. I will not allow violence and terrorism to go unpunished, but I will act against them in a firm and responsible way. I think people appreciate that. You can ask people on the left and people on the right, and they agree with that completely.
BW: You write in your book that in a meeting with President Trump then Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer said this to the president: “Peace with the Emirates is a five-foot putt. Peace with the Saudis is a thirty-foot putt. And peace with the Palestinians is a hole-in-one through a brick wall.” Do you still believe that a two state solution is possible, yes or no?
BN: For a long time, and this was because I've served for a long time, the absence of peace was due to me. I was the obstacle to peace. You remove me, you remove my insistence that we don't give up the heart of our homeland, Judea and Samaria—that's where the word Jews come from—that we do not vacate and make it Jew-free, that this was preventing peace. Well, I was removed from office and in came my successor, Shimon Peres and later Ariel Sharon and Olmert and Barak and so on. They didn't achieve peace with the Palestinians. Why didn't they achieve peace with the Palestinians? Because the Palestinians don't want peace with Israel. They want peace without Israel. They don't want a peaceful state next to Israel. They want a state instead of Israel. That's the obstacle that has prevented peace for a century, and it's eluded successive administrations in the U.S. and also successive intellectuals in Israel. It's an amazing oversight on their part. If you keep waiting for the Palestinians to make peace and everybody says you can't get to the Arab world first, then you can't make peace with the Arab countries unless you first make peace with the Palestinians. We waited for a quarter-of-a-century, and I said that's wrong, because the other 99% of the Arab world can make peace with Israel. They don't negate the existence of Israel the way the Palestinians do. I said they will come around when they see that Israel is here to stay. What kind of an arrangement can we have in such a confined space? I think that whatever the Palestinians end up with, it'll have to be an entity that is militarily controlled by Israel. And people will say that's not perfect sovereignty. And I say, right, because if we vacate our military from these areas, they'll be taken over instantaneously by Iran and the radical Muslims. That's what happened in Gaza. We left.
BW: Is that the lesson of the pullout from Gaza?
BN: From Gaza and from Lebanon. In both cases, Iran's proxies moved in. We've sustained roughly 20,000 rockets, 10,000 apiece from each side. That's what would happen in Judea, Samaria—the West Bank. If we walk out, Iran walks in. Hamas walks in. No peace. So the answer is, I think we'll get to peace with the Palestinians once they recognize Israel is here to stay. But that peace will have to have Israel in charge of overriding security. If that's not perfect sovereignty, that's the way you build a realistic peace.
BW: I know we could do three hours on Iran, a country you've mentioned several times in this conversation. It's on your mind, but also really on the minds of every serious Israeli and Jewish leader, the existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people. It's topics A, B, C, and Z. I wanted to ask about the developments in Iran over the past two months, which has been really an uprising among the Iranian people. Young Iranians, especially young women, have been dying in the streets for daring to defy the mullahs, to express their rejection of the Islamic Republic and their thugs. In Qatar, at the World Cup, the Iranian soccer team refused to sing the national anthem. God forbid to imagine what those people are going to return to when they come home. What should the West be doing right now to support the brave people of Iran who are standing up against their regime?
BN: I would say two things. One is to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, because once they do, then they become immortal. That regime becomes immortal. You don't want them to achieve immortality because they will threaten our mortality. That can be done through crippling sanctions and through a credible military option. That's number one. Number two is something new that you mentioned. I followed what is happening in Iran for decades and something new is happening here. The fact that these extraordinarily brave Iranian women and men are challenging the regime is absolutely amazing because they're killing them. You have to understand they're killing them all the time. And we only get a trickle of information. The true…
BW: The true news.
BN: Yeah. They're killing them, but they're very brave. That tells me that this regime is very fragile. Now, what is it that we can do about that? You will forgive me if I leave that to my conversation with several leaders, beginning with President Biden, my friend of 40 years.
BW: Let's talk a bit about Israel's position on the world stage. I'm going to leave the conversation about Russia and Ukraine to another time. Israel has been very equivocal in that war. But I want to talk about China, another place this morning where we're seeing massive protests against the very draconian CCP Covid policies.
Israel is doing business with state-owned enterprises of a country that's not only committing a genocide against the Uighurs but is an enemy of the United States and the West. China, right now, is building the Tel Aviv light rail and operates one of Israel's major shipping ports in Haifa, among other infrastructure projects. You've not just been willing but enthusiastic in your partnership on these issues. I wonder what the calculus here because it seems to me that the logic goes something like this: in a world where America is receding from its role as the world's policeman and where the Democratic Party has consistently been moving away from Israel, Israel needs to be smart, look ahead, and look around the bend to find other allies, even imperfect ones. Is that the logic?
BN: Up to a point. I have to say that I think America is an indispensable ally. I think America, the rise of America, made all the difference in Jewish history—it's not merely the rise of Israel in the first half of the 20th century. America became the leader of the world, and it protected liberty, protected democracy, and protected human rights. It would be a tragedy if the United States abandons its role and stops believing in its mission to be the beacon of liberty and the world.
BW: But as the prime minister of Israel, do you need to prepare for that possible eventuality? Is that why Israel is creating these deep relationships not just with China but with India and other nations as well?
BN All countries need alliances. Superpowers need alliances. So certainly a small country, a tiny country like Israel, powerful as it is, still needs alliances. Yes, I try to build alliances, but there is a limit to those alliances. Number one, there's a fundamental difference in the alliances that we build with sister democracies, because with sister democracies, we share common values and not only common interests. With the United States in particular, there is a deep bond. It’s really a deep bond. It's not just something I'm saying or just a figure of speech. There is a deep bond. We are the original Jerusalem. Americans are the new Jerusalem, the new promised land, and we're the original promised land. There's a deep bond there, and the same is true to a lesser extent with other Western democracies, however critical I am occasionally of their vacillating positions. I think that common bond is important.
I think that there is a limit to how much we can open ourselves up to being dependent on non-like-minded states. We're all drawing the lessons from that with the supply chain issues during Covid. Yes, I enthusiastically opened Israel up for trade with China and economic enterprises with China. I suppose I'll continue to do that. But matters of national security are also uppermost in our minds as they are in the minds of others. We'll continue to work with China, but we'll also protect our national interests.
BW: Over the tenure of your political career, we have watched as the typical American supporter of Israel has changed in a pretty radical way. 50 years ago that person was someone like my grandparents, American Jews. Now, the typical supporters of Israel are evangelical Christians. At the same time as that has happened, Israel has become a kind of litmus test in progressive circles: In order to be perceived as being on the right side of history, you need to oppose Israel. In certain environments, to even say that you're a Zionist is basically akin to committing social suicide. Help me make sense of that change. How do you understand it?
BN: The problem is, does America believe in itself? Do democracies believe in themselves? They're on the wrong side of history supporting Israel? Do you support Hamas? You support the Palestinians who decapitate or shoot in the neck dissenters who hunt, gays who hang them if necessary, who are opposed to women's rights and subjugate women? What is this? This is called pinkwashing? Gay washing? Have these people gone mad? I'm not saying Israel is a perfect society. There is no perfection in any democracy. But how can one compare these? It's an inversion of reality. It's a collapse into political correctness, which is absurd. Political correctness has its limits. I'm not politically correct. I like to be correct. I think that's better, and I think you do, too.
You know what happens when people get mugged by reality? They change their opinions, they modify them. You can say defund the police. Forgive me for saying this, but now both parties in the United States are saying we're not going to defund the police because they got mugged by reality. These are self-correcting things. They're going to run out of things to say when we complete the circle of peace with the Arab world and when Iran is fully exposed. One of the interesting things that is happening now is that when I used to shout against Iran it was a Netanyahu spin to avoid peace in the West Bank. Now everybody in Israel shares that goal. The true face of Iran has spread beyond political correctness, because both the left and the right in the Western world are opposed to Iran. This is new. This is different. It's the beginning of a potential change. I'm never pie-in-the-sky. I never look at the world through rose-colored glasses. But I see something different. When will that bring about a change in viewing Israel realistically? It’ll take time. But Israel's an amazing country. Come over here and see. See the open, liberal society that we have. Yes, we have what you would call Pennsylvania Dutch. They look the same. They're not the same, but they look the same because they both have these little beards. But that's the multiplicity, the pluralism that we have. We have the new and the old. We have the most innovative society on earth. We have women in the military as combat soldiers, and we have women fighter pilots and a woman Supreme Court justice. Be on the right side of history. Support Israel, for God's sake, and don't support these backward killers. Get on with a program of liberty. For God's sake, support Israel.
BW: The World Cup is going on in Qatar and there have been a river of disturbing video clips in which Israeli fans and journalists are being harassed. Saudi fans were heard yelling at an Israeli reporter, “you're not welcome here” and “there's no Israel, only Palestine.” One Israeli reporter was kicked out of his car by a taxi driver who refused to drive an Israeli. This is Qatar, where you can go to jail for three years for being gay.
But let's be real: no one's surprised by this. The hatred of Jews in the Arab world is so widespread, so normalized. What's changing, and what's scaring many American Jews that I know, is that those kinds of sentiments, framed more subtly, are being expressed here in America, the country that was supposed to be the new Jerusalem, that was supposed to be exceptional for the Jewish people. Many American Jews I know are privately asking questions like: Should I wear my kippah in public? Should I take down the mezuzah from my door? At almost every single dinner I am at with other Jews, there’s a joke about making aliyah, moving to Israel. What do you say to those American Jews who are questioning America's exceptional relationship with them as Jews? And do you notice the rising tide of antisemitism here in the United States, a country where you were in part raised and have spent much of your life?
BN: The sentiments that are changing in the Arab world are not the rabid anti-Israeli and antisemitic sentiments that you see. It's, in fact, the pro-Israel sentiments. When the Saudi team defeated Argentina, I called my Likud branch in Saudi Arabia. I have a friend, Muhammad Soad, who openly supports Israe on the internet, and he speaks Hebrew to me. I congratulated him, and this was seen by millions. So that's a change. But yes, you have persistent things, especially in Qatar.
BW: But what of rising antisemitism here in America?
BN: Antisemitism is the oldest hatred and is not going to disappear quickly. Every time somebody has a grudge, you can blame the Jews. The capitalists said the Jews are communists, the communists said the Jews are capitalists. You have a problem? Blame the Jews. What is the solution to that? The first is not to cow before these absurd charges but stand up to them and speak up against them. Don't be frightened. Stand up. You have a right to be proud Jews, to be proud American Jews. Don't sacrifice that right. You will not achieve anything by cowering away. That's the first thing I say, because the state of Israel essentially is the embodiment of that sentiment. Individually, each Jew has to decide about their own decision, where they want to live, how they want to live. I would suggest to you that there are enough forces in America that respect the tremendous contribution of Jews to civilization and to American society. I wouldn't give up the fight. I wouldn't say it's over. I don't think it's over at all. But I also say that Israel is always here with welcoming arms. That's an individual decision that people will make as a country, as a nation. We offered the Jewish people a big change that no longer would we kowtow before our tormentors. No longer would we be defenseless. We would not be defenseless in two ways: physically, but also morally. We would stand up to them. I did that in the United Nations. I've done that elsewhere. And I suggest that every person stand up for your right, stand up for the right to be Jewish, proud Jews, and stand up for Israel.
BW: One more question about antisemitism. Last week, Donald Trump had dinner at Mar-a-Lago, his home in Florida, with Kanye West and a Holocaust denier named Nick Fuentes. Now, Trump has claimed he doesn't know who Nick Fuentes is, but he certainly knows who Kanye is, who has spent the past many weeks on an antisemitic tear. What do you think of Trump's decision to have dinner with Kanye and Fuentes?
BN: Well, first, I condemned Kanye West's antisemitic statements. Straight away, I thought that was just wrong and misplaced. And I think that that's what I would say about President Trump's decision to dine with this person I think is wrong and misplaced. I think it's a mistake. He shouldn't do that. He has been a tremendous supporter of Israel, and I'm unabashedly appreciative of what he did for Israel. He did great things for Israel in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, long overdue, given that it happened 3,000 years ago under King David. He moved the American embassy there. He recognized our sovereignty on the Golan Heights, from which we were attacked for years by Syria. He got out of this dangerous Iran deal, and I appreciate all that it doesn't take away from. Also, you know, he's been very supportive of the Jewish people. So I think he made a mistake. I hope it's not repeated. That's all I can tell you.
BW: Bibi Netanyahu, a quick lightning round. Who's your political hero?
BN: Theodor Herzl.
BW: Who's your biblical hero?
BN: King Saul. He was tragic.
BW: What's your favorite novel?
BN: My favorite novel? I don't read novels. I read history.
BW: What's your favorite history book?
BN: The Bible.
BW: What is the best investment you've ever made?
BN My wife, my kids, my country. My country. I chose to live here.
BW One adjective to describe the following people. Donald Trump is . . .
BW: Barack Obama is . . .
BN: Very, very intellectual.
BW: Bill Clinton is . . .
BW: Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Rex Tillerson, Mike Pompeo. Who was the best secretary of state to work with?
BN: The two secretaries of state that made a tremendous impression on me are George Shultz, a great American, and Mike Pompeo, a great American.
BW: Do Israelis have more in common with Arabs or American Jews?
BN: It depends. Depends on the American Jews. Depends on the Arabs. But ultimately, American Jews. In the Middle East, some Arabs. On deep set values, definitely American Jews.
BW: Do you believe that the Jewish people are chosen?
BN: Yes. In the sense that we have brought to the world the idea of morality. If you look at modern civilization, it came from Jerusalem. I don't know if it's a question of destiny. I don't know how to explain the events that propelled me into my present life, because if my brother hadn't died in Entebbe, I doubt very much that I would be sitting here speaking to you. You don't know how fate works, but once you're propelled into a certain direction, then you do your best to carry out a life of purpose. And my life definitely has a purpose: to protect the one and only Jewish state and assure its future. I would urge people who read my book—this is an unadulterated plug for the book––if you're seeking a life of purpose, which I think is the only life worth living, you might glean valuable insights from reading my story, which might help your story.
BW: Israel is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary this spring. If you could give a headline to newspapers around the world about how to describe Israel's achievements over the past 75 years, what would it be?
BW: Prime Minister Netanyahu, I know you need to go and form a government. I really appreciate you taking the time.
BN: You just destroyed one of my coalition partners, but we'll make it up later. Thank you.