Israel’s intelligence minister urges US to team up with Russia against Iran
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Interview'If the Russians want to keep Assad, they have to push Iran out of Syria'

Israel’s intelligence minister urges US to team up with Russia against Iran

Yisrael Katz meets with Congress members and Trump envoy to discuss his bid to link Israel and Saudi Arabia by train

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

In this Tuesday, March 7, 2017 photo, Israel's Transportation and Intelligence minister Yisrael Katz speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, in his office in Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP/Dan Balilty)
In this Tuesday, March 7, 2017 photo, Israel's Transportation and Intelligence minister Yisrael Katz speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, in his office in Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP/Dan Balilty)

WASHINGTON — The Israeli government wants the United States to negotiate with the Russians to ensure Iran does not gain a permanent military foothold in Syria, Israel’s Intelligence and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said.

In meetings with senior-level administration officials and high-ranking members of Congress, Katz urged the US to get the Russians to remove Iranian forces from the country, which is in the sixth year of a devastating civil war.

“We discussed how the Americans can negotiate with the Russians,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s in the common interest not only for Israel, but for the Sunni Arab countries in the region.”

Katz, who is a member of the high-level security cabinet, was sent to Washington by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss Syria and other matters with American officials.

“In our region, there are two different things, but the things that are existing now are, on the one hand, big threats and dangers, and on the other hand, big chances for cooperation,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen next to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the weekly cabinet meeting at Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem, September 4, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen next to Intelligence and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the weekly cabinet meeting at Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem, September 4, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israel believes that Trump is signaling a new policy toward the Middle East — evident in his ordering a missile attack on a Syrian airfield over an Assad regime chemical weapons attack, and his rhetoric toward Tehran — that will possibly include shifts in how Washington deals with the Iranian challenge, Katz said.

“There is a new policy in the United States, and Iran is on the bad side, not the good side,” he said. “It’s very clear. You see it in declarations and acts.

“Because of the next American policy against Iran, against the Shi’ite axis that Iran leads with the backing of Russia, this is a big opportunity to bring real changes to the regional security situation,” he added.

Katz came to Washington after visiting New York, where he addressed the World Jewish Congress.

‘There is a new policy in the United States, and Iran is on the bad side and not the good side’

In the capital, he met with North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr (R), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and New York Rep. Adam Schiff (D), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

He discussed with them Israel’s hope that the US will negotiate with the Russians to remove an Iranian military foothold in Syria.

Katz insisted that Trump could apply pressure to Russian President Vladimir Putin to soften his resolve to prop up Assad.

“If the Russians want to keep Assad, they have to push Iran out of Syria,” Katz said. The White House is “very close to deciding that Assad has to go,” he added, “so if the Russians want to have the chance to keep Assad in his job, they have to act and to help move Iran out of Syria. Because if they will not do it, they will move Iran out or we will move Assad out.”

On Wednesday, Katz also met with Trump’s Special Envoy for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt to discuss his plan to develop a regional transportation system that would link Israel to Saudi Arabia by railroad via the West Bank and Jordan.

Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, left, meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, March 13, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, left, meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, March 13, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“We are maybe going to call it not a truck rail, but a Trump rail,” he said.

Katz said he believes the administration will support his initiative, not necessarily as a component of its hope to broker a “conflict-ending” Israeli-Palestinian accord, but to improve the region, which could foster greater conditions for a peace deal.

“If the United States would support it — and we want them to support it — it would be very much in their interests, because it would be good for Jordan’s economy, its stability, and for the Palestinians’ [economy] as well,” he said.

He also said there was “a strategic logic” to solidify ties between the Sunni world and Israel, which share an interest in countering the Iranian-led Shiite axis.

After the meeting in which Katz presented his plan to Greenblatt, the former lawyer tweeted: “I look forward to discussing the possibilities with all parties.”

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