ASTANA, Kazakhstan — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a visit to Kazakhstan Wednesday to send a warning to arch-enemy Iran: Don’t underestimate us, we are tigers, not rabbits.
During a meeting Wednesday morning in Astana with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the host asked Netanyahu whether he could deliver a message to Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, who is set to visit the Central Asian country next week.
Netanyahu replied yes, according to a senior official with knowledge of the details of the discussions. “Ask him why Iran continues to threaten us with annihilation. Don’t you understand: we’re not a rabbit. We’re a tiger,” the prime minister told Nazarbayev.
Netanyahu also told Nazarbayev that “if Iran attacks Israel it will put itself at risk,” the official said, speaking on conditioning of anonymity.
Kazakhstan, a country with a Sunni Muslim majority, has friendly ties with both Israel and Iran. Last year, Nazarbayev congratulated Tehran on the nuclear pact it struck with six world powers, a deal Israel criticized as a historic mistake.
In April, Nazarbayev visited Iran for the fifth time since he became president, calling the Iran and Kazakhstan “brotherly nations.”
Nazarbayev asked Netanyahu whether he really believes that Tehran intends to wipe Israel off the map. Netanyahu replied that he does indeed think so, adding that he takes Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s constant threats literally.
The Kazakh president agreed to convey the message to Rouhani.
Speaking to reporters after a long day of meetings with Kazakh officials, businessman and Jewish community leaders, Netanyahu confirmed the message and said that he repeated it in his subsequent meeting with Kazakh Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev. “I intend to repeat this message many times,” he said.
After several months in which Netanyahu has rarely spoken publicly about Iran, he has in recent weeks made a series of comments some observers interpreted as more bellicose. Most recently, he told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that he has five ideas how to work together with US President-elect Donald Trump to roll back the nuclear pact with Iran.
“If the Iranians change their attitude toward us, we will change our attitude toward them,” he said Wednesday noting, however, that the regime incessantly repeats its threats directed at Israel.
Netanyahu also said that Nazarbayev “responded positively” to his request to support Israel’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Kazakhstan itself will begin a two-year term at the Security Council on January 1, though Netanyahu and Nazarbayev did not discuss possible pro-Palestinian resolutions and the likelihood of Astana opposing them, the prime minister said.
Netanyahu also said Israel remains concerned that Washington could back a Palestine-related resolution at the Security Council in the last days of President Barack Obama’s presidency that ends January 20. “With every passing day that possibility becomes less likely, but until then it’s still there,” Netanyahu said.
Wednesday’s “historic” visit to Astana marks the first time an Israeli prime minister has visited the country, Netanyahu said. The Jewish state openly cooperating with a Muslim majority state could, and should, serve as a model for Arab Muslim states, he added.
“I don’t deny that I have double intentions,” he said, explaining that while he is genuinely interested in boosting bilateral trade and security ties with Kazakhstan, he also wants to show moderate Arab states that it is possible to have strong and overt ties with Israel.
Arab countries in the Middle East will not suddenly recognize Israel, “but there plainly is a trend,” the prime minister said. Israel’s extensive clandestine cooperation with these states “will eventually create a critical mass.”
Asked when was the last time he spoke with the leader of a country Israel does not have formal relations with, Netanyahu replied: “I do it all the time. By all the time, I don’t mean months ago.”