Q&A: Benjamin Netanyahu on Israel's Right Turn

Israel's Prime Minister-designate, Benjamin Netanyahu, sat down last week for a long interview with NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth—his first with the foreign media since he was asked by President Shimon Peres to form Israel's next government. Currently, it looks like he'll have to cobble together a narrow right-wing coalition, after opposition leader Tzipi Livni refused to join him in a broad national-unity government. Excerpts:

Weymouth: President Peres reportedly believes that you have matured since you served as prime minister in 1996. Do you think you are a different Bibi Netanyahu?
Netanyahu: One would hope. I think time has its uses. One of them is to reflect on your experiences and those of others. I have watched carefully the successes of governments and of prime ministers and of policies and sought to draw from those the elements of policy and leadership that will enable me to move Israel to a better future.

Would you continue the peace talks that were begun at Annapolis?
I would like to continue the political talks in a way that does not contradict Israel's international obligations

… We have to choose between three courses. The first is to build from the top down as has been done until now—shooting for an instant, final settlement. This has failed time and again because of the lack of a partner on the Palestinian side that can deliver the minimal concessions needed by the Israeli government. The second option is to do nothing. I propose a third way: to continue political talks and at the same time advance the [Palestinian] economic development that has begun and also strengthen the Palestinian security forces. I personally intend to take charge of a government committee that will regularly address the needs of the Palestinian economy in the West Bank.

But economic progress is not a substitute for political progress.
It's not a substitute, but in Northern Ireland it was an unbelievable facilitator for the Good Friday agreement and the others that followed.

What do you say when asked if you believe in a two-state solution?
I think that any final settlement for peace would have to enable the Palestinians to govern themselves, except [for] a handful of powers that would threaten the state of Israel. Let me give you an example: there is broad consensus in Israel that the Palestinians should not have an army that would pour tanks or artillery into Israel, or that they could not make a military pact with Iran. They could not import rockets to fire on Israel's cities.

Didn't you say that the recent Gaza operation did not go far enough and that Hamas should be toppled? Do you believe that?
Down the line, the presence of an Iranian base committed to wiping Israel off the face of the earth does not bode well for peace. Hamas is incompatible with peace.

So what do you do about that?
I hope that the Palestinians in Gaza find the ability to change this regime because we want to have peace with all the Palestinians. Right now, what we should do is to enable humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza but not in such a way as it enables Hamas to buy more rockets.

What kind of a signal does it send when Sen. John Kerry goes to Gaza, gets a letter from Hamas to President Obama and then flies off to Damascus?
The United States administration has rightly said that Hamas cannot be an interlocutor until it recognizes Israel's right to exist and abandons terror. It's a very simple, coherent and correct position. What we expect from Syria is for it to decide if it's on the side of peace or on the side of the enemies of peace. Syria so far has been talking peace but has enabled Hizbullah to arm itself in contravention of U.N. Security Council resolutions with tens of thousands of rockets. (Article continued below...)

You would like a broad-based government?
Sure. I have said so throughout the campaign and afterwards.

It seems that Tzipi Livni, leader of the Kadima party, has blocked this hope.
I was hoping she would change her mind.

What about the Americans, who have a new government that may not be as friendly to your country as the Bush administration?
I don't think that's a problem. I've had two excellent meetings with President Obama. I've found him open to new ideas. I think that he understands, as he said to me, that Iran's quest for nuclear weapons is unacceptable to the United States.

Do you think that short of military action it's possible to halt Iran's nuclear program?
I think this regime is vulnerable to pressure that ought to be intensified. But none of these sanctions and other measures that are contemplated would have much of an effect if the Iranians believe that a military option is off the table.

Is it naive of President Obama to open a dialogue with Iran?
We had this discussion when we met in Jerusalem in July, and I said to President Obama that the method of dealing with Iran is less important than the goal. He expressed very clearly that the goal should be that Iran not have nuclear weapons.

Do you think that you'll govern differently than before? You were very young when you were elected prime minister the first time.
I was 46 years old. That's both young in years but also young in experience. I hadn't had a ministerial post before then. It's not something I recommend.