Netanyahu: Conflict with Iran better now than later

Netanyahu: Conflict with Iran better now than later

Prime minister says Israel will do whatever it takes to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria; stresses importance of his upcoming meeting with Putin

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the press at the Kirya government headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the press at the Kirya government headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that while Israel is not interested in a military escalation with Iran, if there has to be a fight he would prefer it be now rather than later.

The comments came amid escalating tensions between Jerusalem and Tehran as the Islamic Republic has sought to expand its foothold in neighboring Syria, raising fears it could use bases for attacking Israel.

“We are determined to block the Iranian entrenchment, even at the cost of confrontation,” Netanyahu said at the start of his government’s weekly cabinet meeting. “We don’t want an escalation, but we are prepared for every scenario. We don’t want confrontation, but if there needs to be one, it is better now than later.”

“In recent months,” Netanyahu further noted, “the Iranian Revolutionary Guards organization has transferred to Syria advanced weaponry in order to attack us both on the battlefield and on the home front, including weaponized UAVs, ground-to-ground missiles and Iranian anti-aircraft batteries that would threaten air force jets.”

His comments came a week after a strike on an Iranian base in Syria, attributed to Israel, which reportedly destroyed hundreds of surface-to-surface missiles and killed over 30 people, including many Iranian military officials. Iran denied that any of its soldiers were killed in the attacks and that any of its bases in Syria were targeted.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on May 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / JIM HOLLANDER)

Netanyahu also highlighted the importance of his upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, scheduled for Wednesday.

Russia is a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, along with Iran, and has raised concerns over reported Israeli bombing runs in Syria. Moscow has signaled it may sell Damascus advanced air defense systems in response.

“My meetings with the Russian president are always important for the IDF and the country, but the meeting this week is especially important in light of the attempts by Iran to establish itself in Syria,” Netanyahu said.

The two leaders also spoke in early April with Putin urging Netanyahu to avoid any steps that could increase instability in Syria.

The talks will also come just days before the May 12 deadline in which US President Donald Trump will decide on whether or not to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. Russia, a signatory, has called for the pact to remain in place, though Netanyahu has lobbied for it to be annulled or renegotiated.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on Iran’s nuclear program at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. ( AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)

Netanyahu was scheduled to give a press conference later Sunday to foreign media about some 100,000 Iranian files and documents describing the Tehran’s past efforts to develop atomic weapons.

Netanyahu revealed last week the contents of the documents, which were spirited out of Iran by Israeli spies and, he said at the time, showed that Iranian leaders had lied about their country’s nuclear ambitions.

Netanyahu has frequently spoken with Putin as Israel seeks to get Moscow to use its influence to halt Iran’s attempts to spread its influence deep into Syria and Lebanon on Israel’s northern border. They last met for talks in January.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an event marking International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, January 29, 2018. (Vasily Maximov/AFP)

Tehran has sent some 80,000 Iran-backed fighters to back Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in the country’s seven-year civil war, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon said last week.

Israel has said Iranian military entrenchment in Syria was unacceptable, fearing that Tehran could use the country as a springboard for attacks against the Jewish state.

American and Israeli officials have been monitoring the situation as Iran has increased the number of transport planes it has been sending from its Mehrabad Airport in Tehran to Syria. The US and Israeli officials fear that these planes are loaded with advanced munitions, which could potentially be used against Israel.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has repeatedly vowed that Israel would work to prevent this from occurring, “no matter the cost.”

An explosion is seen coming from an army base, allegedly used by Iran-backed militias, outside the northern Syria city of Hama on April 29, 2018. (Screen capture; Facebook)

The base hit in the airstrike last week, south of the city of Hama in northwestern Syria, belonged to the Syrian army’s 47th Brigade but has reportedly been used as a headquarters for Iranian troops for several years.

The recent attack came amid soaring tensions between Iran and Israel following an airstrike last month on Syria’s T4 air base in the central province of Homs that killed seven Iranian military personnel. Tehran has vowed to retaliate for the T4 attack. Syria, Iran, and Russia blamed Israel for that T4 attack. Israel did not confirm or deny it.

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