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Transcript: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on "Face the Nation," May 16, 2021

Netanyahu says Israel will do "whatever it takes to restore order"
Netanyahu says Israel will do "whatever it ta... 12:03

The following is a transcript of the interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that aired Sunday, May 16, 2021, on "Face the Nation."


JOHN DICKERSON: Good morning, Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for being with us.

PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL BIBI NETANYAHU: Good morning.

JOHN DICKERSON: I want to start with yesterday was the worst clash in this seven-day conflict. The last one of a similar sort in 2014 lasted six weeks. How much longer are these hostilities going to continue?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Well, we hope that it doesn't continue very long, but we were attacked by Hamas on our National Day, Jerusalem Day, attacked- unprovoked attacks on Jerusalem and then thousands of rockets and missiles on our cities. And I think any country has to defend itself. It has a natural right of self-defense. We'll do whatever it takes to restore order and quiet and the security of our people and deterrence. We're trying to degrade Hamas's terrorist abilities and to degrade their will to do this again. So it'll take some time. I hope it won't take long, but it's not immediate.

JOHN DICKERSON: Twenty-nine hundred rockets fired on Hamas, according to one- fired from Hamas, according to one report. But there's also a report that Egypt offered a truce. Hamas said yes. You said no. Why?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Well, that's not what I know, and frankly, if Hamas thought that they could just fire rockets and then sit back and enjoy immunity, that's false. We are targeting a terrorist organization that is targeting our civilians and hiding behind their civilians, using them as human shields. We're doing everything we can to hit the terrorists themselves, their rockets, their rocket caches and their arms. But we're not going to just let them get away with it. Neither would you. I mean, just imagine what would have happened if you had 2,900 rockets fired on Washington and New York and others. I think you would understand our position. I think you do actually.

JOHN DICKERSON: The precision of that targeting has been up for question. There's been a lot of focus on the bombing on Saturday in Gaza of a building that housed the Associated Press and Al Jazeera. The Committee to Protect Journalists, demanded "detailed and documented justification." This morning, there's a Jerusalem Post story that says the Americans were shown a smoking gun, that- proof that Hamas was in that building. What is that proof? And did you show it to the Americans?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Well, we share with our American friends all that intelligence and here's the intelligence we had, it's about Palestinian terrorist- an intelligence office for the Palestinian terrorist organization housed in that building that plots and organizes the terror attacks against Israeli civilians. So it's a perfectly legitimate target. And I can tell you that we took every precaution to make sure that there were no civilian injuries. In fact, no deaths, no injuries whatsoever. Well, I can't say injuries, I don't know if somebody received a fragment of- of a stone. I don't know that. But no people were killed. Now, imagine ask yourself, how is that possible? You see these high rise towers that are used by Hamas over and over again. They collapse and no one is killed. Why does that happen? Because we, unlike Hamas, take special precautions to tell people, leave the building, leave the premises. We make sure that everyone is gone before we bring down those terrorist facilities. And that's the difference between Israel and Hamas. They deliberately target our cities, deliberately target our civilians. They glorify the death of children and civilians and old people. They are happy with it. I think they're happy with any deaths that are caused to them. We grieve for every non-combatant loss in Gaza and we grieve for all our civilians who died.

JOHN DICKERSON: We want to get to--

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: But we don't- we're not happy with it and we try to minimize it.

JOHN DICKERSON: I want to get to minimizing those casualties. But you spoke with President Biden yesterday. It's inconceivable you would have talked to him and not shared proof of Hamas in those buildings that housed the journalists. Did you share that with him?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Well, we pass it through the intelligence services to our people, to those people. Why do you think we brought down that building? The interesting thing is I would say that, you know, all the journalists, one of the, I think, AP journalists said we were lucky to get out. No you weren't lucky to get out. It wasn't luck. It's because we took special pains to call people in those buildings to make sure that the premises were vacated. And that's why we brought down that building. And look, you have your own experiences, I think, in Mosul and Fallujah and Afghanistan. I think you can appreciate the efforts we go through in dense urban fighting when terrorists are targeting civilians who are hiding behind civilians, how difficult that is. We do our best to avoid civilian casualties. And we did that yesterday with that building as well.

JOHN DICKERSON: And Mr. Prime Minister, the arguments about how careful Israel have been are familiar ones to your critics. And in this case, with 181 Palestinians dead, 52 of them children, there's significant criticism. Amnesty International has asked the Criminal- International Criminal Court to look into a refugee camp attack. The UN is meeting today. Foreign ministers of the EU are meeting and- and the response has been like this one from the foreign minister of Ireland: "Israel has international legal obligation to protect children in conflict and are not doing so."

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: That's just false. I mean, the reason we have these casualties is because Hamas is criminally attacking us from civilian neighborhoods, from schools, from homes, from office buildings. That's what they're doing.

JOHN DICKERSON: But--

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: And we're taking action, trying to target them with as great precision as we can. Unfortunately, there are occasionally civilian casualties, which we regret. But here's what happens. When the international community attacks Israel, they're actually encouraging Hamas to continue these attacks because Hamas says it's great, we're both killing Israeli civilians. And unfortunately, some of our- and they're happy with their own civilian casualties because it gets that- the international community to focus their attacks on Israel instead of Hamas.

JOHN DICKERSON: But it's--

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: That's wrong. It's both wrong and unproductive. Because actually what it does is prolong the conflict and escalate and increase the number of casualties that- that happen as a result of the continuation of the conflict.

JOHN DICKERSON: But the question- the question, Mr. Prime Minister, is- US Secretary of State Tony Blinken said that Israel has an extra burden, that Israel, because of its strength and power and dominance, has an extra burden on these questions of casualties. The question is whether Israel is meeting its extra burden in- in responding to these rocket attacks from Hamas.

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Certainly are, and I can tell you that there have been many studies by serious military analysts who have compared Israel's actions with that of other Western armies in similar situations, fighting radical Islamists, whether it's in Iraq or in Afghanistan or elsewhere. And you know how prolonged those conflicts are, how many casualties are caused. So I- I think there is a- there has to be a measure of fairness. There has to be a measure of reasonableness in projecting this kind of criticism against the Israeli army that is second to none in seeking to minimize civilian casualties while protecting our own civilians. You know, if Hamas would simply move these rockets out of the civilian areas, if they moved their command posts out of these homes and offices, then there wouldn't be any problem.--

JOHN DICKERSON: Let me ask you, Mr. Prime--

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: You know it. And I know it. But the fact is they're sending thousands of rockets on our cities with the specific purpose of murdering our civilians from these places.--

JOHN DICKERSON: Let me ask you--

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: What would you do?

JOHN DICKERSON: Let me ask you--

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: If it happened to Washington or to New York? You know damn well what you would do.

JOHN DICKERSON: Mr. Prime Minister, let me ask--

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: You'd do at the very least what we're doing.

JOHN DICKERSON: --a broader question. Let me ask you a broader question that was articulated by Senator Bernie Sanders, which is distinct from the clashes over the last week. His argument is that the treatment of the Palestinians is- is so rough that they are marginalized, demonized in such a fashion that there can never be peace, never be a two-state solution, and that- that your treatment of the Palestinians outside of this week is- creates conditions that are always going to lead to this kind of unrest, not just the missile attacks, but the riots you see in cities. What's your response to that?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU:  Well, let's divide it into two. First of all, the- the Hamas is not is not attacking us because they're trying to increase the welfare of Palestinians. In fact, they're taking huge sums to build the terror tunnels, which we've been able to neutralize, to have rockets, missiles and other armaments. They're not building up Gaza. They're- they're doing everything in their power to turn it into a fortified terror camp in order to destroy Israel. And they openly say their goal is to destroy Israel. They're not interested in any kind of- any kind of coexistence, any kind of- the kind of peace, the four peace treaties that I've made with Arab countries that are changing the Middle East. They're trying everything in their power to avoid the path of peace and reconciliation. So I think any- any objective observer understands that Hamas is out to destroy the state of Israel and they're not- they're not a partner. And as far as the citizens of Israel or Arabs, I've done more than any other prime minister and spent billions and billions of dollars in Israeli shekels and five times more than all the previous governments combined to ensure the the that are Israeli Arab citizens, all of them,--

JOHN DICKERSON: Mr. Prime--

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: --can be part of the Israeli miracle, the great economic success story. I've invested that because I believe in it. I didn't do it now and I didn't do it for CBS FACE THE NATION. I really believe in this. There has been a minority- a violent minority that has tried to challenge that as well and to kill innocent people.

JOHN DICKERSON: Mr. Prime Minister, let me--

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: I won't tolerate that. Neither Arabs killing Israelis--

JOHN DICKERSON: Before we lose you--

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: --or Jews killing Arabs or Arabs killing Jews.

JOHN DICKERSON: Let me ask- I want you to respond to one other thing before we go, which is your domestic challenges. You are under investigation for bribery, fraud, breach of trust. You've also had some difficulty, four failed attempts to put together a government in the last 23 months. This leads to the criticism that your current actions are basically an effort to stay in power. And what's your response to that?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: That's preposterous. You know, I- when I was a young soldier, 18 years old, I held a fellow soldier who died in my arms. A few years later, my brother, my older brother, died while leading a rescue mission in Entebbe, Uganda, to release Israeli hostages. I've seen combatants fall. I've seen my brother fall. And I think anybody who knows me knows that I've never, ever subordinated security concerns, the life of our soldiers, the life of our citizens for political interests. That's just hogwash. I'll do what I have to do to protect the lives of Israeli citizens and to restore peace. I've made peace with four Arab countries. I'm glad that we have a restoration of some considerable calm within Israel. That's my goal, to restore peace and quiet and to assure tranquility and reconciliation for all.

JOHN DICKERSON: But this is a persistent criticism, Mr. Prime Minister. Why do you think it persists?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: It persists because I've been re-elected five times. It persists because I beat every other candidate in public polls and in direct election simulations, apparently the people of Israel, the majority, don't agree with this false criticism and the cynicism. They know that I'm standing there for Israel and I'm doing everything I can for the safety and prosperity of the Israeli people. By the way, all of Israel's citizens, Jews and Arabs alike.

JOHN DICKERSON: All right, Mr. Prime Minister, we're out of time. Thanks so much for being with us. And we'll be right back in a minute. Stay with us.

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