Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared via satellite at the JFNA General Assembly. Courtesy of JFNA/Jeffrey Lamont Brown.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses Western Wall, Iran and more


Israel Prime Minister Benjamin discussed the controversial decision of the Israeli government to freeze the implementation of the Western Wall agreement; President Donald Trump’s decision to decertify the Iranian nuclear deal, which Israel was opposed to when it was authorized during the Obama administration; Israel’s improved relationships with its Middle Eastern neighbors and more during the final day of the Jewish Federations of North America’s 2017 General Assembly.

JFNA Chair Richard Sandler conducted the interview with Netanyahu, who appeared from Israel via satellite, on Nov. 14. The GA was held at the JW Marriott hotel at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles.

More than 3,000 people attended.

Here is a transcript of the interview, or you can watch the interview here. The section with Netanyahu begins at the 1:17:47 mark.

Richard Sandler (RS):  Mr. Prime Minister, in January of 2016 much of our audience here today celebrated the resolution the government passed regarding the pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel. And then as we know last June the government froze the implementation. Yesterday at the GA we passed a resolution requesting the Kotel resolution be implemented. So can you please share with us the present status of the resolution and what do we tell those in our community who feel that as Reform or Conservative Jews they may not be fully welcome in Israel?

Benjamin Netanyahu (BN): First of all, you are fully welcome. Israel is the home of all Jews and it must remain so. I took on the issue of prayer arrangements at the Western Wall because I strongly believe all Jews, without exception, should feel at home in Israel.

Now, Richard, you know very well I didn’t have to deal with this; I could have left it to the courts, to the Knesset, but it is vitally important to me, personally. What the government froze in June are only the most ideologically-charged elements of the Western Wall plan. They were holding up the practical elements hostage.

So as many of you know there has been a pluralistic prayer space in the Western Wall, in the Kotel, for almost 20 years. The 2016 decision wasn’t to create prayer space; it was to improve the existing space. We are moving forward with construction to do just that, and I hope, and I am working to make sure that this happens, that you will see the improved prayer space before the next GA [in Tel-Aviv in 2018]. I am working to move forward on solutions for other issues as well.

Here is the thing that guides me—this is true from the time of Ben-Gurion, who as Israel’s first prime minster was faced with this dilemma, how to deal with the conflicting views of religion and the state, and what he articulated then is something that basically all prime ministers have done and I have done as well—you remember also with the issue of conversion, this is this principal: religious status quo issues have always been resolved as the result of evolution, and not revolution.

So, despite the disagreements, despite I have to say a lot of distortions and despite the at-times disparaging remarks about me and my government, I remain committed to moving forward. I believe that the Jewish people are all one family. I believe that Israel is the home of all Jews and that all Jews should have access and prayer in the Kotel.

RS: Now that President Trump has decertified the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] what is in Israel’s best interest and what would we like to see happen next?

BN: Well, for me the bottom line hasn’t changed, Richard. We must ensure that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon. The JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, doesn’t achieve that. On the contrary after about a decade it will leave Iran able to produce hundreds of nuclear weapons in a very short time because the deal rescinds all limitations on Iran’s enrichment capacity. They can have hundreds of thousands of centrifuges, and they plan to.

I want to thank President Trump and his administration for the current American Iran policy. I also want to thank Ambassador Haley for the strong support given for Israel at the U.N.

What President Trump has done is create an opportunity to address the deal’s flaws and in my view I don’t particularly care about the deal. I don’t care if you keep it or you remove it. But you have to correct it either by fixing it or nixing it.

I’ve been speaking to world leaders around the world actually, and I’ve encouraged them to take advantage of this opportunity. Now the question is why is Iran so dangerous? It’s dangerous because of its fanatical ideology of global conquest, its growing power, its unflagging commitment to destroy Israel, its unvarnished aggression.

Iran has already spread bloody conflict across the Middle East – in Yemen; Iraq; in Syria; in Lebanon – and we are far from alone in recognizing the Iranian threat to the Middle East. I believe that the leading Arab countries—Saudi Arabia; the Emirates; many of our Arab neighbors—see things exactly as we do, and I think they’re right.

Now Iran is scheming to entrench itself military in Syria. They want to create a permanent air, land and sea military presence with a declared intent of using Syria as a base from which to destroy Israel. We’re not going to agree to that. I’ve said very clearly: Israel will work to stop this, and we must all work together to stop Iran’s aggression, its worldwide campaign of terror and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

I think if we stand together we are going to achieve it, but I’ve always said if we have to we will stand alone. Iran will not get nuclear weapons. It will not turn Syria into a military base against us.

RS: I read recently in U.S. News and World Report where Israel was ranked the eighth most powerful country in the world. And thinking about the 70 years of all the pressures and all the distractions Israel has been put under, how do you do it?

BN: It begins with a simple reality that we understand. In our area, and it’s a very, very tough neighborhood, the weak don’t survive. The strong survive. We look around us and see entire nations being wiped out. People massacred tragically. So you have to be strong, and there are basically three powers that we are all the time nurturing. The first power, you would be surprised, you’d think it is military power and it is, but it is very expensive. We nurture the Israeli army, we’re very grateful for the support, the continued support of the United States, and I am very happy I signed with President Obama the MOU for 10-year support for Israel, $38 billion, it helps, but believe me 85-percent of our budget, our military budget, has to come from Israel. And where do you get that? Well you get it from a strong economy, that’s the other power we’re developing.

And, you know, there is a great genius in our people but for too long it was shackled, it was really not allowed to burst out because we had a very controlled economy. So I’ve been working very hard over the past 20 years to liberate, liberalize our economy and it has produce a tremendous economic success.

Now you take our military and intelligence prowess, which all nations need. Our intelligence, because Israel has stopped dozens and dozens of terrorist attacks, in dozens and dozens of countries. We share that intelligence with our friends and with many countries that are not our friends but we want to stop attacks like Barcelona or Paris or the other horrors that you see, and we have. So nations want to partner with us, for intelligence or for technology. They want more milk for the cows; guess which country has the most milk per cow? It’s an Israeli cow, you know that.

Or they want solar energy. Or they want clean water.  Or they want cherry tomatoes — it’s ours too. Anything you can imagine. Autonomous vehicles. Israel has this dual prowess of technology and security and we combine that to get an unprecedented diplomatic flourish. We now have diplomatic power because many countries, many, many countries around the world, are coming to Israel, in fact some of them are standing in line – I was in Africa, twice in a year, I was in Latin America. It’s unbelievable. Can you imagine? I am the first Israeli Prime Minister to have visited a country south of the United States in the western hemisphere in 70 years. It is a tremendous change. And by the way, Mexico should be congratulated. Mexico has just decided to vote against 10 anti-Israel resolutions in the U.N., and I think they deserve your applause.

So these three powers – our economic power, our military power, our diplomatic power – give Israel great presence and great capacity to defend ourselves but they all rest on one other power – our spiritual power. Our strength as a fighter of democracy, as a society anchored in our heritage but always seeking the future, our strength is what creates greatest chances for peace, because you don’t make peace with the weak; you make peace with the strong and the threat of Iran has done one good thing: It’s brought us closer than ever to our neighbors, creating new opportunities for peace and I think you will be hearing more about that in the future.

RS: That’s a perfect segue to my last question. As you think about Israel today, what makes you the most proud?

BN: I’m most proud of the rebirth of the Jewish people through the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty. Remember that for thousands of years Jews wandered around the globe. We were homeless, we were voiceless, we were defenseless, and today the Jewish people have returned to our ancestral homeland, and today Israel is capable of defending itself, by itself, against any threat. Today we have a voice and we need to raise that voice,

I’m also proud Israel is an open society, a free society, an island of liberal democracy in a sea of terror. We have free speech, a free press, minority LGBT rights, everything, we have an Arab Supreme Court Justice, a Druze minister who I appointed in my government; female generals; gay members of Knesset. This is what a vibrant and diverse society looks like. I’m proud we have created an open economy that as I told you before has unleashed the ingenuity of our people, our capacity for innovation; I’m proud that Israel has helped thousands of Syrian civilians injured in the war.

Now I just saw the pictures of the destruction in Iran and Iraq following this week’s earthquake. I saw these heartbreaking images of men, women and children buried under the rubble. I’m proud to announce tonight that a few hours ago I directed that we offer the Red Cross medical assistance for the Iraqi and Iranian victims of this disaster. Now you heard me right. We have no quarrel with the people of Iran. Our quarrel is only with the tyrannical regime that holds them hostage and threatens our destruction. But our humanity is greater than their hatred. Israel continues to be a light unto the nations. This is what I am proud of, and all of you can be proud of, of Israel’s morals and Israel’s might.

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