Benjamin Netanyahu, soon expected to return to office as Israel's prime minister, is defending his effort to assemble a government with far-right ultranationalists.
Facing criticism in Israel and abroad, Netanyahu previously had not spoken in detail about Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel's most polarizing far-right politician, now in line to be Netanyahu's minister of national security overseeing the police.
In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, Netanyahu offered his most extensive defense to date of his decision to embrace Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in 2007 of supporting an anti-Arab group that Israel and the U.S. classify as a terrorist organization.
Ben-Gvir has "modified a lot of his views since then," Netanyahu said. "With power comes responsibility."
Netanyahu's party performed well in recent Israeli elections, bringing the country's longest-serving prime minister close to gaining the office for a third time. It's a turnaround: Just last year a broad Israeli coalition ousted him from power. He was on trial at the time on corruption charges, and the trial still continues.
To reach a majority in the highly fragmented Knesset, or parliament, the conservative leader has allied with several parties well to his right. In the past, Ben-Gvir has called Arab members of the Knesset "a fifth column," or enemy within, and said Arabs should be expelled from Israel. About 20% of Israel's population are Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. As recently as last August he said in an Israeli TV interview that "disloyal" Arabs should be thrown out. Another prospective government minister is a lawmaker who has challenged the rights of people who identify as LGBTQ.
The prime minister-designate insisted this was little different than the government he replaced, which included an Islamist party. "Coalitions make interesting bedfellows," Netanyahu said, and maintained that he — not his allies — will call the shots on policy. "They are joining me. I'm not joining them."
Netanyahu is a dominant Israeli figure of the past half-century, serving first as an elite commando, then as an opposition politician and eventually as prime minister for a total of 15 years — longer than any other leader in his country's history. During his time out of power he completed a memoir, titled Bibi, which is his nickname. He spoke with NPR about the book while managing coalition talks, a task he insisted he does not enjoy.
"All politics is cruel," he said. "Israeli politics is crueler than most. I've been subjected, especially my family, to endless vilification because I keep winning elections."
A few excerpts of our far-reaching discussion follow. They have been edited for length and clarity.
On his coalition partner Itamar Ben-Gvir
What value does that specific individual bring to the job of overseeing the police?
Well, first of all, his eligibility was decided by the Supreme Court. ... Secondly, he's modified a lot of his views since then. And I have to say that, with power comes responsibility. Not always, sometimes it works the other way around. ... And certainly [it's one thing to speak in] political campaigns a decade and a half ago, and it's another to actually be in a position of responsibility in governance, and I certainly will ensure that that will be the case. Now, you ask about the well, you know –
Yes, what makes him valuable as head of the police, of all things?
Well, I think one of the things that we've seen is the erosion of internal security in Israel. It's a big, big issue. I have to say his party ran on that. He says, "I want to be tested. I think I can bring security to Arabs, the Arab citizens and Jews, citizens alike." ... That was his campaign promise. We have a coalition. I said you will be given the chance. You'll be given the tools. You better do the job. And I think that time will see.
Are you saying that Arab Israelis, Israeli Arabs, Palestinian citizens of Israel, as many will call themselves, should be able to trust this man who has said that Arabs should be expelled?
No, I don't think anybody should trust anybody based on their promises. He doesn't say that right now, by the way. ... But I think what will be the test is not whether you believe him or not, but whether you see an actual result. The same is true of me. The jury is out on all of this.
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Do you see any way that ordinary Palestinians would get political equality ... in the foreseeable future?
Well, yes, my formula is very simple. ... The only peace that will hold is one that we can defend. And the one that we can defend is one in which the Palestinians have all the powers to govern themselves, but none of the powers to threaten our life, which means that security, in whatever political arrangements we'll have realistically will have to remain in Israel's hands.
They won't see that as political equality, of course.
No, I don't doubt that for a minute. I say it openly. Joe Biden, friend of 40 years, when he was vice president, was in Israel. And he said to me, "But Bibi, that's not complete sovereignty." And I said, "You're right, Joe, but that's the only one that will last."
On his opposition to Biden's effort to rejoin a nuclear agreement with Iran
Joe Biden has been a great friend, although we've had our disagreements. He always says, "Bibi, I love you. I don't agree with you on anything." That's not true. We agree on quite a few things. I have a suspicion right now that because of the unfolding events, the dramatic events in Iran [anti-government protests] and the change of attitude that has happened across the political spectrum, left and right in many lands ... I have a clear feeling that today in Washington, people understand that the way to go is not to return to the flawed nuclear agreement, but in fact, to adopt a much more resolute attitude.
The broadcast audio was produced by Claire Murashima and edited by Daniel Estrin, Larry Kaplow and Reena Advani.