Netanyahu heads to Europe, with Iran on his mind

Netanyahu heads to Europe, with Iran on his mind

Former top diplomat says premier unlikely to move EU leaders on necessity of nuclear deal, but may sway them on some of its details, as well as on Iranian activity in Syria

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel address a press conference at the chancellery in Berlin, October 21, 2015. (AFP/Tobias Schwarz)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel address a press conference at the chancellery in Berlin, October 21, 2015. (AFP/Tobias Schwarz)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads to Europe Monday in a bid to rally support from key allies for amending the international nuclear deal with Iran and for pushing Iranian forces out of neighboring Syria.

Netanyahu is set to meet with leaders from Germany, France and Britain, beginning with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday.

Addressing his Cabinet Sunday, Netanyahu said archenemy Iran would top his agenda and voiced optimism for a successful visit. Israel has been a leading critic of the international nuclear deal with Iran, and more recently, has said it will not allow Iran to establish a permanent military presence in Syria.

“For years we stood alone against these twin threats and I think that the situation has changed for the better,” Netanyahu said.

Last week the premier said of his upcoming meetings: “I will discuss with them ways to block Iran’s nuclear aspirations and Iran’s expansion in the Middle East,” noting the issues were “crucial to Israel’s security.”

Netanyahu unsuccessfully tried to block the landmark nuclear deal, which gave Iran relief from crippling sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, when it was negotiated in 2015 under the leadership of US President Barack Obama. He has found a welcome ally in President Donald Trump, who last month announced the US was withdrawing from the deal.

US President Donald Trump welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House on March 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)

Both the US and Israel hope that Trump’s withdrawal can lead all sides into addressing what they say are the deal’s shortcomings — including “sunset” provisions that eventually end restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities, such as enriching uranium, as well as permitting Iran to continue to develop long-range missiles.

Netanyahu says that as the deal expires over the next decade or so, Iran will emerge with the ability to produce a nuclear bomb in a very short time.

In addition to the US, the nuclear deal was negotiated by Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China. The remaining members have said they remain committed to the deal. Iran for now also is honoring the agreement, though some top officials have suggested it could resume its enrichment activities.

Macron’s office said France will insist on having a dialogue with Iran.

An official in his office said Macron, along with Germany and the UK, have all been “clear” that they will work with the existing deal, viewing it as the best way to control Iran’s nuclear activity. The official spoke on condition of anonymity under customary briefing guidelines.

Contrary to what the US and Israel say, Europe insists the 2015 agreement works and Iran has abided by it.

“There is no alternative,” the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said last week.

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, British Prime Minister Theresa May, center, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel smile as they pose for photos at the start of an EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia, May 17, 2018. (Ludovic MARIN/AFP)

Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union, said Netanyahu is unlikely to change the minds of his counterparts on the necessity for the current agreement.

But he said he may sway them on certain details not included in the deal, such as Iran’s missile development and the expiration of restrictions on nuclear activity.

“There’s no secret that the prime minister wants to completely change the agreement and replace it with an agreement that covers the issues that are missing,” said Eran, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “I don’t think that he will change the policy, but he will get maybe a commitment to work on the missing points.”

The Europeans have acknowledged concerns over Iran’s regional military activities and its ballistic activities, but sought to maintain the accord while creating a separate arrangement on these issues.

While Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, Israel recently released tens of thousands of seized Iranian nuclear documents that Netanyahu said proves that Iran pursued a nuclear bomb in the past. He is likely to discuss this information with the other leaders.

Eran said Netanyahu may make more progress on his other demand — expelling Iranian forces from Syria.

Netanyahu has long identified Iran as its greatest threat, pointing to its nuclear program, calls for Israel’s destruction and support of anti-Israel terror groups.

Israel fears that as the Syrian civil war winds down, Iran, whose forces and Shiite proxies have backed President Bashar Assad, will turn its focus to Israel.

An Israeli artillery unit takes position near the Syrian border on the Golan Heights on May 9, 2018. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

The Israeli air force is believed to have carried out a number of airstrikes on Iranian positions in Syria. Last month, the bitter enemies openly clashed when Iran fired dozens of rockets at Israeli positions in the Golan Heights, and Israel responded by striking several Iranian targets in Syria.

Eran said he believes the European leaders are receptive to Israeli concerns.

“I think he will reach an understanding on the question of Iran’s deployment in Syria and other activities of Iran in the region,” he said.

The French official said Iranian influence in Syria needs to be addressed, and that France agrees that Iran’s military presence there is a threat to security. The official said Macron would seek to be briefed on Israeli dialogue with Russia — another key Assad backer — about Iran.

Russian officials have signaled in recent days that there may soon be an agreement for Iran to move its forces away from Israel’s border, but there has been no confirmation of a deal.

“An Iranian departure from southern Syria alone will not suffice,” Netanyahu said last week.

“The long-range missiles that Iran is working to station in Syria will endanger us even beyond the range of several kilometers from southern Syria; therefore, Iran needs to leave Syria altogether.”

A photo released by Iranian media reportedly shows the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage attributed to Israel on April 9, 2018. (Iranian media)

In addition to discussing the Iranian deal, Netanyahu is likely to hear European concerns about Israel’s use of live fire in mass Palestinian protests along the Gaza’s border with Israel.

Over 110 Palestinians have been killed since the protests began two months ago.

Israel says it is facing weekly attacks by violent protesters at the border. It says the riots are orchestrated by the Hamas terror group, which rules Gaza, and used as cover for attempted terror attacks and breaches of the border fence.

Some protesters have hurled bombs, Molotov cocktails and rocks a troops, tried to breach the fence or sent flaming kites over the border to burn nearby Israeli farmland, undermining Hamas’s claims that the protests were peaceful.

At the height of the protests on May 14-15 protests, over 60 Palestinians — almost all of them members of the Hamas or Islamic Jihad terror groups — were killed in clashes with the IDF.

Palestinians face off with Israeli forces during weekly clashes along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, east of Gaza City, on May 25, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

The EU has accused Israel of using excessive force, while rights groups have accused Israeli snipers of acting illegally by using deadly force against unarmed protesters who did not pose an immediate threat to their lives.

Netanyahu’s first stop will be in Germany. Merkel has been a critic of Netanyahu’s, objecting to settlement policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Last year, Netanyahu also snubbed Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, after he met with a non-governmental organization critical of Israel’s West Bank policies. The two met earlier this year.

In France, Netanyahu and Macron will attend a ceremony celebrating Israel’s 70th anniversary. He then heads to Britain to meet with Prime Minister Theresa May.

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