Minister: 'We did not kill' Hamas man in Malaysia

Liberman to Saudi-owned paper: If Iran strikes Tel Aviv, we’ll strike Tehran

Defense chief supports Trump pulling out of nuclear accord, says it will lead to a collapse of the Iranian economy and potentially an end to the regime

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks during a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, on April 12, 2018. (Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks during a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, on April 12, 2018. (Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman threatened to strike Tehran, along with Iranian facilities in Syria, if Iran were to attack Tel Aviv, in an interview published Thursday with the Saudi-owned, London-based news outlet Elaph.

“If they attack Tel Aviv, we will strike Tehran,” the defense minister warned.

Liberman’s statements came in response to the increasingly aggressive threats coming out of Tehran following an April 9 strike against an alleged Iranian drone facility in central Syria, which Iran has claimed Israel carried out. Israel remains officially mum on the strike.

Jerusalem has declared Iranian entrenchment in Syria unacceptable and vowed to take action in order to prevent it.

“We will destroy every site where we see an attempt by Iran to position itself militarily in Syria,” the defense minister said. “We will not allow it, at all costs.”

Despite his harsh language, Liberman said that he “wants calm” and doesn’t “want to attack or fight anyone.

“I want the situation in Tel Aviv, where the hotels are full and the cafes and restaurants are full around the clock, to continue, and this is what I also wish [for the Iranians] — calm, not war,” he said.

Liberman is the latest senior Israeli official to be interviewed by the Arabic-language newspaper. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai have also spoken recently with the paper, along with a number of senior political figures. Mordechai also sat in on Elaph’s interview with the defense minister.

While Elaph is owned by Saudi businessman and journalist Othman Al Omeir, the website itself is blocked in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the outlet has been seen as a way for Israel to communicate with the kingdom, albeit indirectly.

Liberman’s interview focused on three main issues: Iran, the Palestinians, and Israel’s improving relationship with the Arab world.

On Iran, Liberman took a hard-line approach — something that is likely to be well received by the Saudis, who see the Islamic Republic as their primary foe in the region.

From left, Head of Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the European Union Hailong Wu, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarifat, Russian Deputy Political Director Alexey Karpov, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and US Secretary of State John Kerry arrive in Lausanne, Switzerland, Thursday, April 2, 2015, after the United States, Iran and five other world powers on announced an understanding outlining limits on Iran’s nuclear program. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)

Liberman criticized the Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, comparing it to the 1938 Munich Agreement, which was meant to halt Nazi Germany’s expansion through Europe, but ended up emboldening Adolf Hitler.

“Europe is wrong again. In the past, the Europeans made a mistake when they signed the Munich Agreement in 1938 with Germany. We all know what happened and how Hitler tricked them,” he said.

“I think they are making the same mistake,” Liberman said.

The defense minister argued in favor of the United States pulling out of the accord, as US President Donald Trump has threatened to do. According to Liberman, such a move would lead to a collapse of the Iranian economy and potentially an end to the regime itself.

“The Iranian economy is collapsing. Look at the popular demonstrations against the unjust regime, the regime that led to economic collapse in Iran,” he said. “They know that the Iranian regime is in its last days and its collapse is near.”

Iranian worshippers chant slogans during a rally against anti-government protestors after the Friday prayer ceremony in Tehran, Iran, on January 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Liberman charged that Iran has spent $13 billion in funding terrorist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad throughout the Middle East. “And the Iranian people get nothing,” he said.

In the coming weeks, Trump is due to decide if America will remain part of the Iran nuclear agreement or impose new sanctions against the regime. On Wednesday, Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron, who was visiting Washington, indicated that the US was likely to stay in the deal but seek additional measures to curb things like Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for terrorist groups in the region.

“We will respect any decision taken by the US administration in this regard,” Liberman told Elaph.

Liberman also denied that Israel was behind the assassination of alleged Hamas drone maker Fadi al-Batsh, who was shot dead in Malaysia last Saturday.

A picture taken on April 21, 2018 shows men holding up a poster portrait of 35-year-old Palestinian professor and Hamas member Fadi Mohammad al-Batsh who was killed in Malaysia, outside his family’s house in Jabaliya in the northern Gaza strip. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

“Al-Batsh was not a scientist looking to bring electricity to Gaza. He was working on developing drones and making Hamas rockets more accurate,” Liberman said.

But the defense minister said, “We did not kill him.”

Asked who he thought had killed the electrical engineer, the defense minister quipped that maybe it was “James Bond, like in the movies.”

A New York Times report Wednesday, citing Middle Eastern intelligence officials, said Israel’s Mossad agency was behind the assassination, as part of a broader campaign against Hamas’s efforts to send experts for technical training and weapons acquisitions abroad.

Discussing the prospect of peace with the Palestinians, Liberman said the “two-state solution is out of the question today.”

The defense minister reiterated his calls for a “regional solution,” one that would see Israel coming to an agreement not only with the Palestinians but with the entire Arab world.

Liberman also cast doubt on the ability of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to make peace with Israel, calling him a “lightweight.”

The minister defended Israel’s forceful response to the protests and clashes along the Gaza border, which resulted in the deaths of 40 Palestinians according to the Strip’s Hamas-run health ministry’s toll.

A Palestinian slings a shot by burning tires during clashes with Israeli forces across the border, east of Gaza City, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 20, 2018. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Liberman blamed the high number of casualties on Hamas, which rules Gaza.

“Hamas uses children and women as human shields,” he said.

He said Israel’s relationship with the Arab leaders around the Middle East are improving, but remain in the shadows. He encouraged them to emulate Egypt’s former president Anwar Sadat, who publicly visited Israel in 1977 and addressed the Knesset.

“I invite them to come out to the public and visit Israel, as Anwar Sadat did, and we will welcome them all,” he said.

Liberman told the news outlet that Israel and Arab countries in the Middle East have reached understandings on “75 percent of things,” but that the remaining quarter “is the hardest.”

Liberman would not go into detail on Israel’s military cooperation with Arab countries, but allowed, “It can be said that there is coordination.”

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