Calming tensions with US, PM lauds ‘indispensable alliance’

Calming tensions with US, PM lauds ‘indispensable alliance’

Addressing Saban Forum, prime minister says US and Israel see eye to eye on most things, calls on world powers to curtail Iran's fiery rhetoric against Israel

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the Saban Forum, December 8, 2013 (photo credit: Saban Forum screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the Saban Forum, December 8, 2013 (photo credit: Saban Forum screenshot)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a high-profile address Sunday, attempted to allay tensions between the US and Israel while reiterating his warning that Iran was continuing its drive toward a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu addressed the Saban Forum in Washington, DC, over video from Jerusalem, and lauded the strong relationship between the US and Israel. He called it “the crucial anchor of stability in the Middle East” and an “indispensable alliance.” He also assured viewers that despite the public spat between Jerusalem and Washington over the Geneva agreement reached last month between the P5+1 and Iran, Israel and the US see eye to eye on most things.

“I want you to know we can have different perspectives… Most of the time and on most things, if not the major things, we see eye to eye because we share common values, because we’re anchored in deeply democratic societies,” he said.

Despite the differences, “we always share our views honestly, sincerely and respectfully. That’s what good friends do,” Netanyahu added.

Originally slated to be interviewed by Charlie Rose of CBS News, Netanyahu opted to give a speech instead, and did not answer questions afterward, as other speakers at the forum, including US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, had done.

Netanyahu offered praise for Obama, who spoke Saturday, saying that defense and intelligence cooperation between Israel and the US under his presidency had reached “new heights” and that there are likely no two other world leaders who speak as often as they do.

Obama had indicated Israeli demands on the Geneva deal with Iran were unrealistic, and mentioned that he and Netanyahu did not view the deal, which eases sanctions in return for curbs on uranium enrichment, the same way.

“You’ll hear arguments, including potentially from the prime minister, that we can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil. Period. Full stop. End of conversation,” said Obama. “In an ideal world,” he said, “Iran would destroy every element and facility, you name it.” But, he went on, “We have to be more realistic.”

Along with the Iranian issue, the other core of Netanyahu’s address was the ongoing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and the prime minister lauded Kerry’s “tireless efforts for peace.”

“Tireless. I mean, this man doesn’t sleep,” Netanyahu said, adding that some of his cabinet ministers were growing jealous at how much time he was spending with the American diplomat.

The prime minister dismissed charges that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the core of the region’s instability, noting the Sunni-Shia conflict, the Syrian civil war, terrorism in Iraq and Iran’s nuclear program as examples.

“That’s not to say that peace with the Palestinians is not important — it’s vital,” Netanyahu said, “first and foremost for Israel and for the Palestinians.” He called a lasting peace accord with the Palestinians a “strategic goal of the State of Israel” and his government.

“I’ve made hard decisions to further peace negotiations,” he said, perhaps in reference to his government’s agreement to release Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails as a precondition to peace talks which began in July, “I’m willing to make even harder decisions to achieve peace, and I hope [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas is willing to do so, because peace can only be and must be a two-way street.”

Netanyahu said he was ready for a “historic compromise that ends the conflict between us once and for all,” but said the core of the conflict has been the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize Israel “with any border.” He said Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state’s right to exist was “not too much to ask” and was a “minimal requirement for peace.”

Any such peace accord, he said, must provide guarantees for Israel’s security, as a treaty between Israel and the Palestinians was likely to yield “a cold peace.”

“Any agreement that we make must enable us to protect the peace, or conversely to protect Israel in case the peace unravels,” Netanyahu said. “So there must be ironclad security arrangements to protect the peace, arrangements that allow Israel to defend itself, by itself, against any possible threat” with Israel’s own forces.

Turning to Iran, Netanyahu said a nuclear-armed Iran was the greatest threat to a potential Israeli-Palestinian accord.

A nuclear-armed Iran, he said, “would undermine the chances of arriving at a negotiated peace, I would say it would undermine those peace agreements that we’ve already reached with two of our neighbors” — Jordan and Egypt.

He called Iran’s virulent rhetoric about Israel “not just a matter of sticks and stones.” In Tehran’s case, “talk has consequences,” he said, and called on the world to demand, alongside the Geneva talks, a change in Iran’s “genocidal policy” vis-a-vis Israel.

“I don’t think I can overstate — I don’t think any of us can overstate — the Iranian danger,” Netanyahu said, repeating his claim that none of the things Iran insists it must have are necessary for a peaceful nuclear program. He called on the world to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state.

“Steps must be taken to prevent further erosion of sanctions,” he added, because the sanctions are critical to international efforts to press Iran to dismantle its nuclear program.

“For diplomacy to succeed, it must be coupled with powerful sanctions and a credible military threat,” he said. “A diplomatic solution is better than a military option, but a military option is necessary for diplomacy to succeed, as are powerful sanctions.”

He described preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons as “the paramount challenge of our generation,” as a nuclear-armed Iran “would literally change the course of history.”

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