'We'll meet again next year, here in Jerusalem,' PM promises

Netanyahu: Nuclear deal is setting Iran on a ‘highway to a nuclear arsenal’

Silent on burgeoning corruption probes in address to US Jewish leaders, PM says deal emboldened Islamic Republic but helped reshape the region in opposition

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations annual mission in Jerusalem on February 21, 2018. (Avi Hayoun/Conference of Presidents)
Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations annual mission in Jerusalem on February 21, 2018. (Avi Hayoun/Conference of Presidents)

The Iran nuclear deal gives the Islamic Republic “a highway to a nuclear arsenal” and has increased its aggression across the Middle East, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an address Wednesday to US Jewish leaders visiting Israel.

Speaking at the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem,  Netanyahu avoided any mention of dramatic developments in a series of corruption investigations he is linked to, instead using the occasion to reiterate his criticism of the 2015 P5+1 deal and slam Iran for its activities across the region.

“It has given them a highway to nuclear arsenal. Not just to a nuclear bomb, but to an arsenal of nuclear bombs,” he said of the deal. “So Iran is by far the most dangerous force in the region.”

Netanyahu said that the deal, will do the opposite of what it was intended to do, and allow Iran to eventually create a nuclear arsenal with the money it receives from sanctions relief.

“Understand that if nothing happens and the sanctions keep going down, tens of billions of dollars go into Iran’s coffers each year. We are talking about an extra trillion dollars to Iran,” he said. “They will be able to enrich uranium and that is the key part of making a nuclear bomb.”

To the applause of the audience, Netanyahu vowed that Israel “will never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.”

The prime minister has been a constant critic of the 2015 Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in part over its “sunset clause,” which eventually removes restrictions against nuclear development, as well as over the limitations it places on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ability to inspect Iranian military sites.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves part of an Iranian drone downed in Israeli airspace, during a speech on the third day of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) held at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2018. (Screen capture)

Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have maintained that these issues are serious flaws in the agreement. They also protest the fact that Iran has been able to develop ballistic missiles, with which it could launch a future nuclear weapon, despite a UN resolution calling for it to stop.

Addressing the Munich Security Conference last week, Netanyahu argued that if the US were to restore some sanctions against Iran, countries throughout the world would be forced to choose between access to the Iranian economy, with its GDP of approximately $500 billion, and the American economy — with its GDP of nearly $20 trillion.

Speaking Wednesday, Netanyahu also took the opportunity to slam Iran over last week’s incident in which an Iranian drone that entered northern Israel from Syria near the Jordan border last Saturday was shot down by an Israeli attack helicopter. In response to the drone incursion, Israeli jets attacked the mobile command center from which it was operated, the army said at the time.

“It was a brazen and unprovoked attack against Israel. It is one of many unprovoked attacks in the region, from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen,” he said. “We will never allow Iran to establish a base in Syria to attack us from.”

In this image made from video provided by Yehunda Pinto, the wreckage of an Israeli F-16 is seen on fire near Harduf, northern Israel, February 10, 2018. (Yehunda Pinto via AP)

During the reprisal raid, one of the eight Israeli F-16 fighter jets that took part in the operation was apparently hit by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile and crashed. The Israeli Air Force then conducted a second round of airstrikes, destroying between a third and half of Syria’s air defenses, according to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus.

But Netanyahu said that Middle Eastern nations are turning toward Israel over concerns at Iran’s “aggression.”

“There are great changes in the region. Anyone with eyes in their head can see this dramatic change. It starts with the fact that most Arab countries see Israel not as their enemy but as an ally in facing challenges. The greatest challenge we face is from radical Islam,” he said. “They are concerned with Iran’s aggression and that aggression is growing. The Iran nuclear deal both enriched Iran and increased Iran’s aggression.”

Notably missing from his speech was any mention to the burgeoning corruption investigations surrounding his affairs that have led the Israeli news over the past week.

Tuesday was a dramatic day for Netanyahu, with a close confidant of his signing a deal to turn state witness and reportedly testify against him in the Bezeq probe, and a new alleged attempted bribery case surfacing in which Netanyahu is not a suspect but a key aide is. Last week police recommended indicting the long-time prime minister for bribery in two other cases, clouding his political future.

Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu reportedly told his government allies that it is “business as usual” for him, resisting calls, mostly from the opposition, for him to take a leave of absence as investigations against him mushroom.

The prime minister’s only indirect hint to his legal struggles came at the very end of his address, when he assured the visiting leaders he would see them again a year from now. “I want to thank you for standing up for Israel, standing by Israel, standing up for the truth time and again,” he said to applause. “Thank you. We’ll meet again next year, right here in Jerusalem, the united capital, forever united. of the State of Israel. Thank you all. Thank you for your support.”

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