STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu joins us next. Israel's military has been rounding up politicians or operatives linked with Hamas. That military operation on the West Bank came after the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers. Prime Minister Netanyahu, welcome back to the program.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Thank you. Good to be with you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Much to discuss here; we'll dive right in. You said that you have proof that Hamas is behind the kidnappings. And Israelis as well as Palestinians have been saying, OK, show us the evidence. Can you describe the evidence you have?
NETANYAHU: Well, we've pretty much figured out who are the kidnappers, the actual perpetrators, the supporters, the command structure. And there's no question. These are members of Hamas. We've passed some of the information to the U.S. government and others. We'll make it public as soon as the investigation enables us to do that. Our - my number one goal right now is to get back are three kidnapped boys. One of them, by the way, one of these teenagers is an American citizen. So nothing that could hamper that - we don't do anything that could hamper that. But we'll divulge this information very soon. And I think the entire world will see the veracity of what I've just said.
INSKEEP: Can you tell us - is it telephone intercepts? Is it human intelligence? What do you have?
NETANYAHU: Well, we have a lot. There's no question about it. But it'll come out. And when it comes out - I mean, it's important to understand that this is - these are Hamas members in the Hebron area and the West Bank. But Hamas is calling for kidnappings every day -from Gaza, from its centers in places like Turkey and Qatar, and in the West Bank itself. It keeps saying, we have to, all the time, kidnap, murder, maim Israelis and destroy the state of Israel. And Hamas has been, therefore, declared as a terrorist organization by U.S. law precisely for that reason.
INSKEEP: Prime Minister Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, has criticized this kidnapping publicly. And he's also, we're told, had his security forces cooperating with you on the ground. And you've said it's good that he made that statement, but that you also want action. Can you name specific cooperation that Abbas has withheld?
NETANYAHU: Well, first of all, I do appreciate the statement against the kidnapping. It's important. I think it'll be tested, also, by stopping the glorification of released terrorists who did exactly this in the past and murdered many Israelis - and that he break his pact with Hamas. I think that's the critical thing because Hamas is incompatible with peace. Hamas, like the Islamist movements that you see in Syria and in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, is committed to savagery that not only includes the demise of the state of Israel, but actually the establishment of these Islamist realms - unforgiving, violent realms that oppose peace. You can't make a pact with Hamas and peace with Israel. It's one or the other in both. And I think the most important thing that the President Abbas could do, aside from helping us to bring back these boys, is to break his pact with Hamas...
INSKEEP: I want to make sure that people...
NETANYAHU: That's a step towards peace.
INSKEEP: I want to make sure that people understand what you're talking about. You're talking about this unity government that's been formed between Abbas's party, Fatah, and Hamas. Is that your real goal here, to make sure that that unity government is broken up?
NETANYAHU: Well, our first goal is to get our boys back. The second is to find the kidnappers, who are Hamas. The third is to weaken, as much as possible, Hamas, that performs these grisly deeds and calls for our destruction. That's natural. Anybody would do that, just as you're fighting al-Qaida everywhere you can. I think that if you are trying to make peace, you can't have a unity pact with al-Qaida - in this case, with Hamas. You have to break away from it. And I think there are perhaps some thoughts to that affect in certain Palestinian circles. And I hope that they produce action. So I think that the end result of this should be not only to try to bring back these teenagers and to apprehend their (unintelligible), but also to break away from this pact with Hamas that can - is a giant step backward from peace.
INSKEEP: If you press too hard...
NETANYAHU: And breaking the pact with Hamas will be a step towards peace.
INSKEEP: If you press too hard, Prime Minister, and end up weakening or some out deposing Mahmoud Abbas, who is the closest thing you have to a friend on that side, will it be destructive to Israel's interests?
NETANYAHU: I certainly don't think that. And by the way, we're not taking action against the Palestinian population. There is no collective punishment or anything like that. We do have large searches, naturally, because we're looking at many houses and many places. But our goal is to minimize the friction with the population and focus on these (unintelligible) missions of doing - of basically securing back - getting back our teenagers and also taking action against those who kidnapped them.
INSKEEP: Let me ask about another subject if I might, Prime Minister Netanyahu...
NETANYAHU: And by the way, we found a lot of weapons, tunnels, explosives and so on in these searches. It's not that - we're not exactly dealing with Mother Teresas here.
INSKEEP: I understand. Now, let me ask you about another subject if I might. Iraq, where, as you know very well, a militant group ISIS has been gaining ground...Do you see this as an existential threat to Israel, this group spreading across both Iraq and Syria?
NETANYAHU: I think - I think it's a great danger, not only to Israel, but the United States and to everyone in between. The battle in Iraq and in Syria is part of an ongoing fight between radical Shiites, led by Iran, and radical Sunnis, led by al-Qaida, ISIS and other organizations. Now, both of these camps are mortal enemies of the United States and of Israel. And my view is that when your enemies are fighting each other, you don't strengthen either one of them. You weaken both. And in this case, that means that you take the action you deem necessary to counter ISIS forces in Iraq. But it also means not allowing Iran to dominate Iraq as it has dominated Lebanon and Syria. And I think that's...
INSKEEP: Are you suggesting that the Iraq....
NETANYAHU: It's not an easy thing to do.
INSKEEP: Are you suggesting the Iraq...
INSKEEP: Are you suggesting that the Iraqi government here, which is on the defensive, is basically influenced by Iran and that you would not do what you could to support the Iraqi government?
NETANYAHU: Well, I'm not suggesting it. Everyone else knows it. It's not a suggestion. Of course it's dominated by Iran. Mr. Maliki is very much dominated by Iran. But I think it's a complicated balancing act. And I'm not going to give advice more specific than that on a public medium. But I think there is something that I would say - that by far, the worst thing that could happen is to allow any of these radical forces to get nuclear weapons. And I think that's why we should be doing everything in our power to dismantle Iraq's military capability. And I think that should remain the single, most important objective in the Middle East because, while radical Shiites and Sunnis armed with machine guns and mortars can kill thousands and tens of thousands, armed with nuclear weapons, they could kill millions. And that would be a catastrophe.
INSKEEP: That's Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We spoke with him earlier this morning. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.