Updated 8 a.m. ET Monday
President Trump's administration has begun pressing Israel to embrace the idea of a Palestinian state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is insisting on something less.
Netanyahu spoke with NPR after Trump spoke in favor of a two-state solution while visiting the United Nations last week. (To be precise, Trump welcomed a two-state solution, or a one-state solution in which Palestinians are absorbed into Israel: "If they do a single, if they do a double, I'm OK with it if they're both happy.") In the NPR interview, Israel's leader pushed for neither.
Netanyahu said Israel must remain in complete control of security, whether Palestinians claim a state or not.
"My view of a potential agreement is that the Palestinians have all the powers to govern themselves, but none of the powers to threaten us," Netanyahu tells NPR's Steve Inskeep in an exclusive interview for Morning Edition. "The key power that must, must not be in their hands is the question of security. ... I don't want them either as citizens of Israel or subjects of Israel."
The Israeli leader says he would prefer Palestinians receive "basically all the powers of sovereignty, or nearly all the powers, but not the ones of security." This option, he says, would give Israel overriding power of security, but let the Palestinians "govern their lives in a more complete way," with their own parliament, government and tax system.
He believes this potential solution is the most realistic approach and "the best arrangement" for both parties.
Last week, President Trump said he supports a two-state solution, making it the first time he has publicly voiced his stance on a Palestinian state. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas responded in agreement with Trump, saying the path to peace requires a two-state solution.
Netanyahu, however, tells NPR he has made it clear for several years that any Palestinian government could not have full control of security.
Despite Trump's comments, Netanyahu says the relationship between the U.S. and Israel continues to be "a very powerful bond." He doesn't view his close friendship with Trump as a risk to the historic bipartisan support for Israel in the United States.
He gives Trump credit for his "tremendous service to our common security," specifically when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal.
"We can have disagreements and yet have a basic agreement about the importance of our alliance," he said. "I don't have a disagreement with President Trump on Iran."
In May, Netanyahu praised Trump for his "courageous leadership" in pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, something Israel had been fighting against since its formation. Netanyahu again commended Trump for standing up for Israel during the U.N. General Assembly meeting last week, when the Trump administration announced it would cut all funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Palestine. The agency helps fund schools and clinics in the West Bank and Gaza — as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon — for more than 5 million Palestinian refugees.
As for bipartisan support in the U.S., Netanyahu believes that both Republican and Democratic leaders understand Israel's dedication to "a robust, open, free democracy."
"We value America's support from all sides," Netanyahu said.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We've been asking the prime minister of Israel about a Palestinian state. The subject returned to Benjamin Netanyahu's agenda last week. President Trump put it there. Trump joined his predecessors favoring a separate Palestinian state on land that Israel has occupied since a 1967 war.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think probably two-state is more likely. But you know what? If they do a single, if they do a double - I'm OK with it if they're both happy. If they're both happy, I'm OK with either. I think the two-state is more likely.
INSKEEP: It is not clear how the two sides would get to a second state. The Trump administration has yet to reveal its peace plan. U.S. diplomats are pressuring Palestinians to settle for less and less. Some Palestinians have been shifting focus. Palestinian analyst Yezid Sayigh told us the other day that Palestinians need basic civil rights.
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YEZID SAYIGH: I don't care if the state that represents them is Israel or Palestine or has some other science fiction name. These are human beings who are entitled to live a life of dignity, of prosperity, in which they fulfill themselves as individuals and as groups in every possible way that any American or British person or Chinese person would want.
INSKEEP: Palestinians today have trouble going abroad without Israeli permission and have no say about the movements of Israeli forces. The demand for equal rights is provocative. It implies that if Palestinians are denied a state, millions could demand voting rights in Israel. Not surprisingly, Benjamin Netanyahu sees this matter differently. He once endorsed a separate Palestinian state but now favors something less. So when he came on the line Friday, we asked him about President Trump's endorsement of the two-state solution.
Can that happen on your watch, Prime Minister?
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Look; I think people mean different things when they say two-state. So rather than get into the label, I'd like to talk about the substance. My view of a potential agreement is that the Palestinians should be able to have all the powers to govern themselves but not have the powers to threaten us. The key power that must not be in their hands is the question of security. In the tiny area west of the Jordan River up to the Mediterranean - it's all about a width of about 50, 60 kilometers - where both Palestinians and Israelis live, Israel must retain the overriding security responsibility.
Otherwise we'll get what happened already in Lebanon and Gaza when we left and basically militant Islam came in under Hezbollah, subservient to Iran, or under Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, subservient to Iran. So if you have a state that has most of the sovereign powers of the state but not the power of security, is that a state or not a state? I don't know. You can argue about that. But that's my position, and I've made it very, very clear both to the previous administration and to the Trump administration.
INSKEEP: Well, let's look at it from the other perspective if we can, then, the question of what Palestinians - actually, the ordinary Palestinian would get. David Friedman, the United States ambassador to Israel, said some days ago - some weeks ago on a conference call with the American Jewish Congress that there are 2 1/2 million Palestinians, he said, on the West Bank and, quote, "you either have to let them go in an independent state, or Israel is going to have to absorb them." At some point, Israel's going to have to make a decision, he says. Now, you're not willing to put the state label, the independent state label, or give them full independence. What about the other option? Are you ready to absorb 2 1/2 million Palestinians and give them full civil and voting rights - equal rights in Israel?
NETANYAHU: No. I don't want them either as citizens of Israel or as subjects of Israel. But I think there's - it's not an either-or model. I think we have a third model at the very least which is basically all the powers of sovereignty or nearly all the powers but not the ones of security. Look in the Middle East, which is littered with failed states. That's often the best you can do. And when you try to do something else, you know, you get a Gaza.
INSKEEP: But you're talking...
NETANYAHU: But that didn't work out.
INSKEEP: You're talking about a situation then, Prime Minister, where you don't want them as citizens of Israel, but you want Israel to still have effective security control of that area. That leads to...
NETANYAHU: That's right.
INSKEEP: ...The question, are you willing to support a proposal that would give Palestinians equal rights, civil rights, full rights that are equal to those of any Jewish Israeli citizen, and what form would that take?
NETANYAHU: Well, they would have those rights in their own territory. In other words, they have their own parliament. They have their own government. They have their own flag. They have their own...
INSKEEP: Well, they have a flag now, but they have very, very little rights compared to the average Israeli, I would think.
NETANYAHU: ...Well, no, if you go - we don't govern the Palestinian cities. We don't administer Ramallah or Jenin or Nablus. It's governed by the Palestinians. But you can extend that governance, but not to the point where you would endanger Israel. Now, this is a very odd thing where the Palestinians are actually demanding something that would collapse their own authority and their own government, but it's not the first time that they do so. So I think we have to be realistic. As long as, you know, we have the Middle East unreformed and pockmarked with so much violence, so much radicalism, so much terrorism, this is the best arrangement we could arrive at.
INSKEEP: And you believe, in any circumstance, that Israel should be able not only to have security control but to arrest people, to bring them into Israeli courts. You want that to stay with Israel.
NETANYAHU: Yes, I want Israel to have that overriding power. And I'll tell you why you don't see - this is an interesting question. How come you don't see that much terrorism in the West Bank? Well, first of all, we have security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority. That's good. We don't have it with Hamas in Gaza. But the bulk of the security operations is done by us. But here's how it's done.
We have, say, intelligence about terrorists in one of the Palestinian towns. And we would call up typically the Palestinian security authorities and say, why don't you take care of it? Because I don't want to send our soldiers there if we don't have to. Why should we? You know, and often we have to do it because we're willing to take the risk. We're then attacked as we were at the U.N. by President Abbas. So they want us to take care of their security, but they also, you know, attack us internationally.
INSKEEP: Final thing, Prime Minister, 'cause I know your time is very brief.
NETANYAHU: I hope you got the irony of what I said.
INSKEEP: I understand. I do. Final thing - you have been very closely aligned with President Trump. That has carried certain great benefits for you. Is there also a risk in being so closely aligned with such a polarizing president because you would rather, as Israel historically has, have bipartisan support in the United States?
NETANYAHU: Israel values its bipartisan support, and Israel has had bipartisan support and I believe will have in the future. It's a very powerful bond.
INSKEEP: There's no risk with being so close to Trump?
NETANYAHU: Well, I think that, you know, you've seen that we could have agreements and disagreements with previous administrations. For example, we had - you know, it's no secret I had a disagreement with President Obama on Iran. But at the same time, we signed an MOU, and the MOU - the memorandum of understanding guaranteed Israel very important American security assistance for the coming decade. And I appreciate that. So we can have disagreements and yet have a basic agreement about the importance of our alliance.
INSKEEP: Prime Minister Netanyahu, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.
NETANYAHU: Thank you, Steve. Good to talk to you.
INSKEEP: Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu - we also invited Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to join us, and that invitation remains open. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.