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Bush won’t allow Iran to go nuclear

An interview with Benjamin Netanyahu

By Allister Heath

08/12/06 "
The Spectator" - - - It was not my idea of a joke, but I reluctantly complied with the Israeli detective’s request that I hand over all my belongings to him ‘as hostages’, including my mobile phone and passport. He congratulated himself repeatedly on his sense of humour, before ushering me on to the back seat of the heavily armoured Jaguar, where I squeezed in as best as I could between Benjamin Netanyahu and one of his bodyguards.

As our mini-motorcade began its journey across London, with the Hebrew-speaking security personnel eyeing every passing car, it soon became obvious that these are curious times for Netanyahu, the former Israeli prime minister. He may be leader of the opposition but he has steadfastly supported his bitter rival Prime Minister Ehud Olmert throughout the conflict in Lebanon, while also feeling that the hawkish views that cost his Likud party the March election have now been vindicated by the thousands of Hezbollah rockets that have landed on Israel over the past month.

To Netanyahu, the rise of Iran’s extremist regime is the defining geopolitical event of our times; the whole world, not just Israel, is in its sights. Dealing with Tehran is therefore the West’s greatest challenge; he is scathing about many Europeans’ refusal to recognise the Iranian regime’s imperialistic and murderous ambitions. But to my great surprise he is absolutely convinced that America will soon step in, one way or the other, to prevent Tehran from going nuclear, and that this will happen at some point during the remaining two years and three months of the Bush presidency.

‘When President Bush said that he will not let Iran develop nuclear weapons, I take him at his word,’ he said, quietly. ‘How he plans to do it of course is up to him. The fact is that the President of the US said that he — he — would not let Iran develop nuclear weapons. That places first a clear goal. It doesn’t define the means, and as you know there is a United Nations resolution, but it does define a time-limit for the achievement of that goal. The timeframe is a logical inference. I take him at his word. Why doubt it?’

Last month’s UN Security Council resolution giving Iran until the end of this month to suspend uranium enrichment or face the threat of international sanctions is only a start. ‘These are obviously milestones. It is important that they are laid down but we have to keep our mind on the main issue, which is that time is running out. Our intelligence chiefs have said that within three years an unimpeded Iran will be able to produce a bomb.’

I pressed Netanyahu further, asking him whether he thought it would be feasible for the US to take out Iran’s nuclear capabilities by force, given that their nuclear research programme is spread across Iran and buried in bunkers deep underground. But Netanyahu simply shrugged. ‘Just listen to Bush. He obviously thinks he has some combination of means: diplomatic, military, whatever.’

Rarely are politicians so unequivocal. Although Netanyahu claims to be relying purely on public statements from the White House, his view will be taken extremely seriously across the world. For it suggests that the Bush presidency will end either on a diplomatic breakthrough with a cast-iron agreement that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons; or else with the monumental gamble that war with Iran would represent.

If the US is indeed preparing for a serious showdown, those who argue that President Bush invaded the wrong country in 2003 will undoubtedly feel vindicated. Remarkably, Netanyahu agrees: ‘Would it have been smarter to go directly into Iran? Would it have been wiser? In retrospect the answer is probably yes.’ But he also argued that one of the most far-reaching yet least recognised military interventions of the past few decades was Israel’s daring raid on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear power station in 1981, which destroyed its nuclear programme. ‘Saddam with atomic weapons would have been a great danger, too. Israel deserves credit for giving the world two to three decades of nuclear peace from nuclear-armed banditry. Israel was condemned at the time, as it is condemned now, for defending itself, but in so doing also removing a tremendous threat from the world,’ said Netanyahu.

But the conversation again turned to Iran and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called for Israel to be wiped off the map. ‘While denying the Holocaust, he’s openly preparing the next one,’ Netanyahu said. ‘Ahmadinejad is behaving exactly like an Islamist Hitler. He is using the same tactics of signalling in advance the act of destruction. That the same thing is happening is one thing, but that the West is reacting in the same way is unacceptable. What is history for?’

By now, Netanyahu was shouting angrily, shaking his fist as he explained the similarities he sees between the 1930s and today. ‘Yes, there are differences, it is not a perfect analogy. Yes, Germany didn’t have a billion Germans to infect. Yes, Germany had race and not creed as its prime goal. Nazism started its attacks on the Jews and spread to the rest of the world in their mad militancy, and that is exactly what is happening now.’

For Netanyahu, Israel is a latter-day Czechoslovakia, which deluded and desperately anti-war European powers, led by Neville Chamberlain, sacrificed to the Nazis in 1938 because of the German-speaking minority in Sudetenland, whom he compares with today’s Palestinians. ‘And, yes, there was apologetics and, yes, there was appeasement and, yes, there was pressure on a small resistant democracy in the face of this German onslaught. It was called Czechoslovakia at the time. And, yes, there were articles in the British press condemning Czechoslovakia for inciting a German response because of the denial of the rights of the Sudeten Germans. Do you want to go on with this?’

Netanyahu rejects the comparison between radical Islamic terrorists and communists. The main difference, he argues, is that the communists were rational when it came to foreign policy, putting their survival first and always backing down at the last moment, as shown in the Cuban missile crisis. This was not true of the Iranian regime, he said, arguing that they were trying to prompt the return of the Hidden Imam, an event which Shiites believe would be accompanied by an apocalypse. ‘Is it possible in the 21st century to have a resurrection of the religious wars that we thought had ended in the 17th century? Yes, it’s possible. This is what is going on.’

With more civilian casualties announced in Lebanon by the day, I asked Netanyahu whether he thought Israel’s military campaign was proportionate. ‘Our response is disproportionately low,’ he replied, comparing Israel’s campaign with Britain’s bombing of Germany during the second world war. ‘We had thousands of rockets on our cities, on Haifa and the northern cities. You had thousands of rockets on your cities. What was the response? How can you measure proportionality without using precedents? In a court of law that’s what people do, they look at precedents.’

But why then were previously friendly Arab regimes now condemning Israel? ‘What Arab leaders say privately to Washington and secretly to Jerusalem is something that would make extraordinary copy for you, and it’s very different to what they say publicly.’ He added that he has had similar conversations over the past two years with leaders of some of the main European countries, and they were far more supportive of Israel in private than in public. For that he blames the media. ‘I don’t think Churchill could have won the war if he had cameras in Dresden... .’

He also said he felt ‘very disappointed’ by William Hague’s recent criticism of Israel. ‘I’m sure he knows better. I always thought of him, and still like to think of him, as a friend and colleague, not in the professional sense but in common views and beliefs. All leadership is taking a personal hit; unless you are prepared to pay a cost for your beliefs, you are not a leader. Blair is a leader. I respect him for it.’

The root cause of the current conflict, Netanyahu argued, is that Hezbollah and Hamas consider all of Israel to be illegitimately occupied land, and that the extremists have been trying to prevent any Jewish settlement in the Middle East since at least the 1920s. ‘They say very openly that their goal is not merely to stop at the 1967 lines; but we could vacate all the West Bank and it wouldn’t make a damned difference to them. [The Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan] Nasrallah was perfectly honest on this. He said he’s firing the rockets into occupied Israel. The occupied settlements of occupied Palestine. It is not a conflict about this or that territory; it is a conflict about Israel’s very existence. And to them, any Israeli sovereignty over any piece of land is anathema.’

This should concern everybody, not only in the West but also in the East, Netanyahu argued, because the extremists are trying to recreate the old Islamic empire of yore. To them, ‘Israel is simply the first forward position of the hedonistic, corrupt infidel civilisation that has to be overcome to afford their view of the resurgence of Islam.’ On that note, Netanyahu bade me farewell and jumped out of the car, leaving me to collect my mobile phone and to ruminate on just how depressing our world has become.

Allister Heath is associate editor of The Spectator and deputy editor of the Business.

ęspectator.co.uk

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