Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu sat down with NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell to discuss his speech to Congress, his views on the path to peace between Israel and Palestine, his differences of opinion with President Obama, and the importance of Israel’s relationship with the United States.
Read the excerpts below:
NBC's ANDREA MITCHELL: Welcome, Prime Minister. Thank you very much for joining us.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Thank you Andrea. It's good to be with you.
MITCHELL: You gave a very powerful speech to a joint meeting of Congress and had a very excited, warm reception. But at the same time, President Obama has said to you that you cannot afford any more delay, that with all of the upheavals, the changes in the Arab world, that Israel is at risk of being isolated, of being left behind. What do you say to the president?
NETANYAHU: Well, I think the president shares with me, and I share with him, the desire to move the peace process forward. And I said in Congress that there's one way to move this thing forward. President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has to do what I did two years ago. Two years ago, I spoke to my people and I said, I will accept a Palestinian state.
I think the president — President Abbas has to say these same six words to his people, I will accept the Jewish state. You know what, I'll give him a break, five words — I accept the Jewish state. Because I think if he says that, then that will move the process forward. People will say, OK, we have a real peace partner, and for real peace, we're willing to move and move quickly.
MITCHELL: Prime Minister, the Palestinians have already said that what you said today in Congress, they have said that your speech was a declaration of war because, from their perspective, you ruled out any division of Jerusalem, you are keeping the West Bank, you're not negotiating on refugees. They call that a declaration of war. Does that leave you and the Palestinians completely at odds, stalemated?
NETANYAHU: I think that's unfortunate, because I think you could see from the reaction of both houses of — both sides of the — of the aisle and both houses of Congress, people were excited. You know why? Because I said the truth. Because deep down, I mean the reason we don't have peace is the Palestinians have refused to accept a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state.
I agreed to do that. I said to my people, I'm willing to do it. The Palestinian leaders should be asked to say these simple words — I will accept a Jewish state. Believe me, he says that, all the walls, all the fences, all the problems will be swept aside and we can negotiate a real peace. I want to have a real peace with somebody who will make peace with me. I don't want to give him a state for him to continue the battle against Israel. I want this conflict to be ended.
MITCHELL: With all due respect, you, in effect, had home court advantage with the United States Congress. You have a long record. You are a great politician. You know every button to push with Americans, Democrats and Republicans. But that's not the world. The wider world is in upheaval. Isn't Israel at risk of being isolated, of the U.N. taking action in September to declare a Palestinian state? That's what President Obama and his aides said that they were trying to avert.
NETANYAHU: Well, the president, indeed, said some important things. First, he said it's not going to be achieved — peace will be achieved not by an imposition by the U.N., it has to be negotiated by the two parties who are willing to accept each other's statehood. And that's what I said today in Congress and that's why I think I got his very strong reception.
The world is changing. We want to make sure that when we make peace, we not only have somebody who will recognize us, but that we know that we have a secure border to defend ourselves, not only to defend the peace, but to defend ourselves if peace unravels.
And I think that we are seeing what is happening in Syria, we're seeing what is happening in other places, in Egypt. We don't even know whether our peace partners will be there tomorrow. I mean, really tomorrow, not in an abstract notion.
So when we say we want mutual recognition and defensible borders for Israel, that's really the meat and potatoes of peace. That's what I said today in Congress. I was absolutely gratified by the really universal positive response there, because I think these are the right elements for peace, and especially in a changing world. In a changing world, in an uncertain world, we have to have anchors of security and recognition to fortify the peace.
MITCHELL: Prime Minister, there was a moment in the Oval Office on Friday. You and the President of the United States and some of your own supporters, friends of Israel, said that you were lecturing him, that it went too far. You disagree about borders, you did not like what he did, but, in fact, what he said was implicit in what previous presidents have said, they just haven't said it as explicitly, and that you shouldn't be lecturing, taking such a hard line with the President of the United States. In retrospect, do you think you went too far?
NETANYAHU: Well, I'm sorry it was interpreted that way, because that wasn't my intention. I wasn't lecturing anyone. I was speaking about the basic things that Israel requires to have peace and security and survival. I'm the leader of an old nation. The president said a great nation. I said he is the leader of a great nation, the American people. And I have the greatest respect for America and for the office of the presidency.
Believe me, I spent my high school years in Philadelphia. I visited the Liberty Bell many times. America is a great nation. And I have complete respect for it and for its president.
I was speaking about those things that the Palestinians have to accept a Jewish state, the fact that the refugee problem will be resolved outside Israel. We're not going to accept the great grandchildren of Palestinian refugees. It's crazy. Everybody knows it. And I think it's time to say it. And I think wouldn't want Hamas. And the president said as much...
MITCHELL: Well, he agrees with you about Hamas.
NETANYAHU: I think it was very important the things that he said.
MITCHELL: But why do you think he disagrees with you about the borders?
He believes that with land swaps that Israel can be well defended, going back to the 1967 borders. What is it that divides you and Barack Obama? Why do you think that he has a different vision of what is required for Israel's security? You don't think that he wants Israel to not be able to defend itself.
NETANYAHU: Absolutely not. I think he's committed to the -- Israel's security. He's said as much and we are cooperating in security areas in ways that the public doesn't know, in many ways. And I also appreciated the fact that he spoke about the ironclad commitment to Israel's security, not only before the Israel-America lobby, but before the Arab world twice. And I think that's important.
I was talking about something that he actually spelled out in the subsequent speech that he gave, that Israel cannot go back to the '67 lines, because those lines are indefensible. Israel would be nine miles wide. That's half the width of the Washington Beltway. We couldn't defend ourselves there. And I was glad that the president emphasized this point, that we're not going back to the June 4, 1967.
MITCHELL: But he hasn't backed down. He still thinks that those borders can be defended with appropriate land swaps.
NETANYAHU: Well, if you listened to his statement the next day, he said that the line would be different from the 1967 line. And I think that was an important emphasis on the president's part.
MITCHELL: Why were you so angry when you first heard about what he said? Issuing a statement before you even got on your plane?
NETANYAHU: Well, I issued the statement. It gives our positions. I haven't changed my positions. It's not a question of anger. Usually, you don't make decisions in an emotional state. I don't do it. I didn't do it this time.
I reiterated our positions. I have to make sure that Israel can defend itself. You know, we don't have, we have this tiny country. I said yesterday or today in the Congress to Vice President Biden, an old friend, I said it's bigger than Delaware, but that's about it.
So we have to have solid security arrangements. Israel has to be able to defend itself to defend the peace. And to defend its life. And I think the president agrees with that.
MITCHELL: And what about your conversation with Hillary Clinton, finally?
There are reports that it was a very contentious, argumentative conversation, when you called her the day before the president's speech, trying to get him to change his speech and not make that reference to the borders.
NETANYAHU: You know, I've been in diplomacy a long time. I've been around for some 30 years. You can't deal with reports of conversations. You have to deal with the substance. I had a very good conversation with the president, a couple of hours. This is the seventh time we were meeting. We have a lot of time together.
MITCHELL: And Hillary?
NETANYAHU: And with Hillary Clinton just as much, I think even more.
So what we say privately is something we keep private. But the important thing, I thought, was that the president made some important statements. And I appreciated it, that the Palestinians will have to recognize a Jewish state, that Hamas, a terrorist organization bent on our destruction, is not a partner, that Israel must maintain its defensible borders and that peace will not be imposed. It will have to be negotiated between the parties.
I think that's a lot of room for agreement. We can have some disagreements, but we agree on a lot more than meets the eye.
MITCHELL: With that, we'll have to leave it there. Prime Minister, thank you so much. Safe travels.
NETANYAHU: Thank you, Andrea. It's good to be with you.
MITCHELL: You, too.
NETANYAHU: Thank you.