Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told US Secretary of Defense James Mattis on Friday that Israel welcomes the “strategic change of American leadership and American policy.”
Hosting Mattis in Jerusalem, Netanyahu — whose relationship with former US president Barack Obama was frequently frosty — hailed the Pentagon chief’s “strong and forthright words” on Iran, and US President Donald Trump’s “very forthright deeds” in launching a strike on a Syrian airbase following a chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime.
“We sense a great change in the direction of American policy,” Netanyahu told Mattis at a joint press conference in Jerusalem.
“This has been appreciated around the world and in our region. I think this is a welcome change, a strategic change of American leadership and American policy,” Netanyahu said.
Testy relations between Obama and Netanyahu reached a low point over a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, led by Washington. Obama pushed hard for the agreement, but Netanyahu fiercely opposed it, arguing it will not prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and that the lifting of sanctions would allow it to support proxy terror groups.
Trump also harshly criticized the deal, and on Thursday said Iran was “not living up to the spirit” of the agreement, adding that the United States would set out its position on it soon. Earlier on Friday, Mattis said the Iran deal “still stands.”
On Tuesday, Trump ordered a review of the deal to be led by his National Security Council, although the State Department admits Iran has so far stuck to its side of the bargain.
In his remarks alongside the prime minister, Mattis referenced Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, which will be marked on Sunday at sundown through Monday evening.
“I think it’s important that we remind ourselves that if good people don’t band together then bad people can do a lot of damage in this world,” Mattis said. “And we’re committed to stopping that and doing whatever it takes to pass on peace and freedom to the next generation.”
“The two dangers that face Israel and all of the other nations in the region that are trying to maintain a stable and peaceful and prosperous region are those that I’m here to discuss with the prime minister, especially the week before Holocaust remembrance,” he said, presumably referring to the twin threats of Iran and the Islamic State.
Earlier in the day, Mattis met with his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Liberman, and spoke of US concern about the Iranian threat to Israel and the region. While noting that Iran was complying with the nuclear deal, he stressed that Tehran continues to be a threat “with ballistic missiles, through its maritime and cyber activities and through proxies and surrogates, including Lebanese Hezbollah, a terrorist organization helping to keep Assad in power in Syria.”
Mattis and Liberman also spoke about the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad, and about the strategic alliance the US is seeking to create in the region between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
“The United States maintains absolute and unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and to its qualitative military edge over Iran or other threats,” Mattis said.
The US defense chief later met with President Reuven Rivlin, who called for trust-building between Israel and the Palestinians.
“We are very committed to the need to build trust with the Palestinians, and I know you are devoted to this mission,” said Rivlin. “The mistrust between the two peoples make it almost impossible to find a way to bring to an end not only a conflict but a real tragedy.
“We are living together, we are sharing the same land, we have responsibilities that we have to trust one another in order to understand that we can live together. Sadly, we have wasted 120 years. The rejection by many of our neighbors, the Palestinians, of the very idea of the existence of the State of Israel does not help,” the president said.