Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat down with TIME correspondents Brian Bennett and Joseph Hincks at his residence in Jerusalem on June 25. The following excerpts from the conversation have been condensed and edited for clarity.
TIME: You are on track to surpass Ben-Gurion as the — as Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister. How does Netanyahu’s Israel look different from Ben-Gurion’s Israel?
NETANYAHU: Well, it has some of the same elements and foundations. First of all, Ben-Gurion established the renewed sovereignty of the Jewish people in our ancestral homeland. That’s an historic achievement. He also laid the foundations for the Israeli Army to guarantee that that reality persists. The way I’ve tried to contribute to the country — and I think it’s changed dramatically — is in the development of Israel as a global technological power. The rise of Israel among the community of nations is the rise of Israeli innovation and technology, both in the civilian field and the military and intelligence field. Israel has now become an important power in the world in these two leading respects.
TIME: What are the factors that contributed to that shift for Israel?
NETANYAHU: The most important one, and one that I’ve fought for and worked hard for, is to open up Israel’s economy, open it up to competition, open it up to the free movement of ideas and goods and people, open it up to success, and open it up to failure. Turning Israel into a free market economy I think was the second critical factor that made Israel the power, the rising power that it is among the countries. The first was the high intensity use of our most gifted men and women in our military for intelligence purposes.
TIME: What can be done to help the millions of people who live in the Occupied Territories who haven’t benefited economically or personally from that rise?
NETANYAHU: Well, I’d separate Gaza from the West Bank, from Judea Samaria, because there the Palestinian economy is on a much better footing, probably double the per capita income that they have in Gaza. Gaza is basically controlled by Hamas, which is a militant Islamic organization that really doesn’t allow any kind of real development to take place because they take all the money that comes in from international support — and there’s quite a bit of it — and they put it into turning tunnels into a terror machine. Because militarily, we’re in charge of the West Bank, we control the territory militarily. There’s no siphoning off of money for that purpose. And in fact, it’s doing better. I like to see more and more and more investments go to — in the private sector — go to the Palestinian areas for joint Israeli Palestinian efforts. Some of that is taking place any way. And I think what Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt has embarked in Bahrain could be tremendously beneficial to the Palestinians.
TIME: But the Palestinian officials wouldn’t even show up in Bahrain for that.
NETANYAHU: Let the markets do their thing. Because if we can get this ball rolling then I think it would enhance Palestinian lives, and I think it will also enhance peace. It’s not a substitute — economic development is not a substitute for political negotiations. It’s not a substitute for political solutions but it sure makes it a lot easier, and I — this automatic boycott by the Palestinians of a conference that is meant to give them a better life, and then to lay the foundations for political negotiations for peace, which is what the Trump plan is going to propose, I think that this automatic boycott is boycotting their own future. That’s what the Palestinians are doing.
TIME: Is the Trump plan going to propose annexation of settlements in the West Bank?
NETANYAHU: Well, I think we have to leave it to the plan as it comes out, and I’ll be able to respond to that when it’s —
TIME: Is there something you’re looking for in that plan?
NETANYAHU: I think everybody recognizes that under any peace proposal, any realistic peace proposal, there are areas in Judea and Samaria that have already become basically part of Israel already. And I separate that as a fact rather than as an ideological-political position. It’s a fact. Half of Jerusalem is beyond the proverbial green line. The ’67 separation. Does anyone believe that we’ll tear up half of Jerusalem? Nobody believes that.
TIME: Many say the series of taking more and more of the steps off the table has driven the Palestinians away from the peace process.
NETANYAHU: Oh, I don’t — they were offered everything, just about everything in Camp David in 2000, with President Clinton and the then Prime Minister Barak, and they walked away from that. They walk away each time. They walked away with Olmert. They walked away with Obama when President Obama and John Kerry wanted to propose a framework for negotiations. I said, you know — I was reelected. I had my reservations, but I said, yeah, I’ll go there. For peace, I’ll be there and we’ll negotiate. They wouldn’t go there. So they walk away. They serially walk away from any negotiations that will present a workable peace. And a workable peace means — it ultimately means compromise. They don’t have to announce in advance what their compromise will be. I don’t expect that from them, and they shouldn’t expect it from us. But we should be able to get into a room and begin to discuss it. They refused to enter the room.
TIME: Retired Israeli generals have suggested that any sort of annexation of West Bank settlements would result in the collapse of security cooperation imposing incredible economic and security costs on Israel. Do you disagree that that’s the case?
NETANYAHU: Well, listen, I heard the same thing about the Golan, that if the United States recognized our effective sovereignty over the Golan Heights, it would collapse any possibility of a process with Syria, and so on. It wasn’t true then, it’s not true here because the Palestinians themselves know that the areas — which are by the way a very small part, the populated areas are a very small part of the West Bank of Judea and Samaria. That that’s going to stay part of Israel. They know it. So let’s stop the pretense. How about let’s just talk straight, you know? If you want, if you are a maximalist and you demand, basically what you’re really seeking is the dismantling of Israel, the dissolution of the Jewish state. Going back to the orchards of Jaffa or Akko, these are places — Israeli towns on the seacoast — and you really want to reverse the last 70 years of history, then you’d take these positions, the maximalist positions that the Palestinians take. And nobody challenges it! In fact, they’ve been pampered too long. The reason we can’t get peace is because nobody goes to the heart of the problem, which is the persistent Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish state in any borders. And when I ask them, okay, will you sit down with us to negotiate such a compromise? And then they don’t. And that has to be addressed and challenged. And I’m glad somebody is doing it, or appears to be doing it.
TIME: Former Prime Minister Olmert still insists that Abbas is the man to make peace. Is that not the case?
NETANYAHU: Let’s see. You know? Let’s see. I don’t choose the leaders for the Palestinians. It’s not that they have exactly the same democratic functions that we have, but I don’t intervene in the choice, in the process by which the Palestinian leadership comes to the fore. But let them come, let them negotiate. Why boycott? Why say no? No to Bahrain, an economic conference that is intended to bring billions of dollars of investment. Can you imagine this? Billions of dollars to the Palestinians, and no to the Trump plan before you’ve even heard it? That’s supposed to bring a political solution? How can you do that?
TIME: First-year members of Congress, first-year Democrats, have been critical of Israel quite vocally recently. Representative Ilhan Omar said that Israel was an apartheid regime. What is your response to this?
NETANYAHU: I think it’s — I think it’s nonsense. But it’s shameful nonsense because the one true democracy in the Middle East is Israel, the one country that ensures the full civic equality of its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. Anybody can be in Israel. Everyone is equal under the law. Everyone has the right to be elected, and in fact, are elected to the Knesset, to the government. So a) the legal structure is the exact opposite of what she’s describing, and it’s only so in Israel. When you look around the Middle East, you see Christians being slaughtered, synagogues and churches being destroyed. Muslims of one sect destroying Muslims of other sects, and so on. The militant Islam and its firebrands are tearing the place apart. And this is what this representative has to say? Why is she not speaking out against the torture and hanging of gays in so many parts of the Middle East. In Iran. Why is she not speaking about the executions, the wholesale executions that go on in the marketplace inside Gaza against innocent Palestinians? Why is she not speaking about the way women are treated as chattel, not only enslaved but also murdered. I don’t hear any of that in so many of the countries around us. She has to talk about Israel, the one place where we have, you know, where we have a woman Supreme Court Justice, and where we have women fighter pilots, and where we have women who are taking part in every realm, aspect of life? I mean it’s just absurd.
TIME: When you look at the economic data, Israeli Arabs have not benefited as much as other citizens of Israel from the economic boom. What do you have to say about that? What could be done?
NETANYAHU: Well, I’ve been working very hard to change that. If you actually go beyond the — all these stereotypes — and you look at what we’re doing, what my government has done is to take $15 billion shekels — that’s a lot of money in Israel — and put it into a multi-year plan that has already had a measurable effect for improving the lives, and especially the infrastructure in the Arab sector. That’s a massive amount of money for roads, for schools, for clinics, for transportation. Transportation is important inside the communities because if a woman, an Arab woman in Israel, an Arab citizen of Israel, a woman wants to go to work, it’s very hard for her to get to work if she wants to go to — have herself educated. She has to get there. And if she doesn’t have her own private transportation –. You have to take care of public transportation. I did! Well, look, can you imagine there wasn’t any in Israel for so many years? We’ve done the same in so many other fields, and I’m glad because I want to see all of the citizens of Israel — Arabs and Jews alike — to have the same opportunity to benefit in this amazing success story that’s called the state of Israel….. So this is something I’m genuinely committed to. It’s not something that I just say. We actually passed these budgets, and we don’t just create budgets out of thin air. It always comes at the expense of something else. I thought this was important. So important that I was willing to prioritize it and put it in as part of our budgets, and I’m very glad to see and to hear the Arab citizens of Israel say, “This is good! We want to be part of Israel. We want to be part of Israeli society.” Are there gaps? Sure. Are we closing those gaps? You bet.
TIME: Do you worry that down the road in the U.S. there’s going to be less support for Israel in a future administration? And are you under pressure to give now in the peace process, or give some concessions now because future administrations may be less friendly to Israel?
NETANYAHU: Uh, look, I think there’s a continual effort on the part of Israel, certainly under my government, to reach out to — first of all to the American people because ultimately in our democracies, our twin democracies, and we are exactly that, we’re twin democracies, ultimately the power rests with the public. And it rests with public opinion. And Israel has to continually make its case before American public opinion. It’s generally been successful because the support for Israel has risen dramatically, and … consistently, over the last 40 years. And it encompasses the vast majority of the American people. But we also have opposition. We also have a lot of vilification, a lot of stereotyping of Israel.
TIME: You’ve been a polarizing figure among American Jews. Do you feel like you’ve played a role in increasing the divide between U.S. and Israeli Jews?
NETANYAHU: I don’t think I’ve been a polarizing figure at all. What, more than any other prime minister that I know to incorporate the diaspora Jews, the Jews of the United States, and other countries, to make them feel at home in Israel. To make arrangements and such things as conversion, marriage. And then prayer sites. It always involves, because of our system, compromises. These are never perfect solutions. But I’ve actually incorporated into law our communal responsibility with our fellow Jews abroad. So I’m often described in some circles in the way that you describe, but it’s not true. It doesn’t reflect on — it doesn’t reflect my basic tendency. I want every Jew to feel at home in Israel.
TIME: Has the Trump Administration’s policy on Iran made Israel more unsafe?
NETANYAHU: The answer categorically is no. What has made Israel — what has challenged Israel’s security is Iran’s goal, one, to have nuclear weapons, which they intend to use to annihilate Israel. And second, their attempts to bring their Army or pieces of their Army into Syria, right in Israel’s backyard with the express purpose of destroying Israel, with those forces.
We have acted militarily against the Iranian attempt in Syria, and will continue to do so, because how would you act if you knew that somebody’s coming, right next to your neighborhood, and pledges to bring missiles and other lethal weapons to kill you and destroy you? Obviously, you’d try to stop them, which is what we’re doing in Syria. And equally, we appreciate the fact that President Trump has put crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy because what we see is those sanctions are actually drying up some of the funds that go to this war front in Syria. We see that very, very clearly. So I think on the contrary, that’s made us absolutely safer.
TIME: If Iran starts stockpiling nuclear material beyond the JCPOA and other agreements, what kind of action are you willing to take?
NETANYAHU: We’ll take whatever action is necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
TIME: Does that include an open strike on Iranian nuclear facilities?
NETANYAHU: Whatever action is necessary will be taken.
TIME: Are those facilities too far underground to be impacted by strikes?
NETANYAHU: Let’s consider what an intelligent journalist like you would consider an intelligent response to that. If I say yes or if I say no. I think neither one is satisfactory, so I’m just going to say we’ll take whatever action is needed.
TIME: The elections are coming up in September. One political analyst said some Israeli voters see the choice between the “indispensable Netanyahu” and “Bibi-fatigue.”
NETANYAHU: Journalists — yeah, they have Netanyahu fatigue from Day One. They didn’t have to go through these 13 years of my service in the office. They have it after 13 days. After 13 minutes. But there’s a very large majority, a very large part of the Israeli public that appreciates what we’ve been doing for the country. For its economy, for its security, for its diplomatic standing, for the state.
TIME: Have the corruption investigations weakened you politically?
NETANYAHU: I don’t think so. I think it actually works the other way around because people just don’t buy it. They think it’s concoction and I know it’s a concoction because there’s nothing there. So ultimately nothing will remain. But people by and large — my supporters — have been, if anything, energized by it.
TIME: You’ve said you don’t intend to pass legislation to protect you from criminal prosecution. Does that mean that you intend to contest the criminal trial as prime minister. And how might that detract from your running of the country?
NETANYAHU: Well, number one, I won’t pass, and didn’t intend to pass, any special immunity laws. That’s just not true. I mean it’s repeated ad nauseam. But it’s actually false.
We never intended, and don’t need it, and didn’t ask for it. We have perfectly good — there’s a perfectly good immunity law in Israel. Whether I’ll need it or not, first let’s see what happens in the hearing. I think the hearing should come to nothing. If it doesn’t, then an Israeli prime minister can serve or can ask for immunity for his period of service. And I haven’t decided yet what I’ll do.
TIME: Last question Mr. Prime Minister. What has been the key to your political survival?
NETANYAHU: That I don’t look at survival. I don’t look at my survival. I look at the survival of the country — its durability, its future. And I have done things including dozens and dozens of economic reforms and a leveraging of the special capabilities that we’ve developed here through market reforms and innovation and technology and cybersecurity; and water and agriculture and transportation; and life sciences. We’ve taken these extraordinary abilities that Israel is now producing and have transferred it to security and political alliances around the world. I think the people of Israel see this. They see this.