Jerusalem sees new US-Iran talks as 'only a matter of time'

Netanyahu said to have ‘frantically’ tried to reach Trump over Iran talks fears

PM was unable to get hold of US president to convince him not to meet with top Tehran diplomat Zarif at G7, according to report, as Israel worries over Trump-Rouhani summit

US President Donald Trump (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters, on September 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Donald Trump (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters, on September 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly urgently tried to dissuade US President Donald Trump from meeting with Iran’s foreign minister, who made a surprise visit to a summit of world leaders in France earlier this week.

According to the report Thursday by Israel’s Channel 13 news, Netanyahu was unable to reach Trump to warn him off the meeting despite hours of “frantic” efforts, reflecting growing unease in Jerusalem with the prospects of direct talks between the US.

The report cited unnamed Israeli and American officials.

Israeli authorities have reportedly expressed alarm after Trump said Monday he was open to meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani following Mohammed Javad Zarif’s surprise visit to the G7 summit in Biarritz, France.

According to Thursday’s report, also carried by US news site Axios, Netanyahu worried that Trump could meet with Zarif, and tried to get Trump on the phone to convince him not to sit down with the Iranian foreign minister, who had recently been sanctioned by Washington. Netanyahu’s staff also contacted members of the US administration to try to schedule a phone call.

However, administration officials said Trump was too busy in meetings at the high-level summit to take the phone call.

(L-R) Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, European Council President Donald Tusk, US President Donald Trump, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend a working session on “International Economy and Trade, and International Security Agenda” in Biarritz, south-west France on August 25, 2019. (Photo by PHILIPPE WOJAZER / POOL / AFP)

Netanyahu instead spoke to Vice President Mike Pence and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom released statements backing Israel’s right to defend itself against Iran.

“The Israeli estimate is that the resumption of negotiations between the US and Iran is only a matter of time, and not a lot of time either,” the Channel 13 report said Thursday. Trump and Rouhani are just “bargaining over the terms” for that resumption, it added.

The flurry of activity came as Israel was dealing with fallout from an air force sortie against an Iranian drone attack plot in Syria and reports of other Israeli strikes in Iraq and Lebanon, which set regional tensions soaring.

Netanyahu had been concerned that a meeting with Zarif could lead to a sit-down with Rouhani, according to the TV report. US administration officials also expressed misgivings about giving Zarif a PR coup.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif holds talks in Biarritz on August 25, 2019 with France’s President Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (Handout photo via AFP)

Trump ultimately decided against meeting Zarif independent of Netanyahu’s efforts, according to the report, but told French president Emmanuel Macron, who had arranged Zarif’s visit, that he would be open to meeting Zarif at a later time.

Speculation has swirled that Trump and Rouhani may meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York next month.

There was no comment on the report from Netanyahu’s office or the White House.

Iran’s leadership has downplayed the chances for talks with the US without sanctions being eased first.

Two Iranian worshippers hold up anti-American and anti-Israeli placards, at a rally to condemn Saturday’s terror attack in Ahvaz, after Friday prayers in Tehran, Iran, Sept. 28, 2018 (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Netanyahu and Trump have been almost completely in lockstep regarding Iran, but the prospect of talks are seen as a catalyst that may set the sides on divergent paths.

The Israeli cabinet has had several discussions about the prospect of US-Iran negotiations, Channel 13 reported, with ministers immensely concerned that Trump may ease sanctions without any real breakthrough, a repeat of his diplomacy with North Korea.

“We have no interest in negotiations between the United States and Iran,” Channel 13 quoted one minister as saying, “but our capacity to influence and confront Trump is extremely limited,” because of Netanyahu’s unwillingness to go against the US president, with whom he has forged close ties.

Netanyahu had campaigned vociferously against the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, fraying ties with former US president Barack Obama, but he found a champion in Trump, who pulled out of the accord last year.

US President Donald Trump, right, and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk along the Colonnade of the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany — the three European parties to the deal — will be joined by EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini for talks Friday on salvaging the deal, which curbed sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel has recently upped its rhetoric against Iran as tensions have soared, though some analysts have also linked the fiery words to a campaign to stymie US-Iran talks.

On Monday, Netanyahu fumed that “Iran is acting in a broad front to produce murderous terror attacks against Israel.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on July 23, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

On Thursday, he accused Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah of racing to build a missile-production program in Lebanon, vowing to destroy the ambitious project and issuing a stern warning to his enemies to “be careful.”

“We are determined to eliminate this dangerous project. The aim of the publication today is to convey a message that we will not sit by and allow our enemies to arm themselves with deadly weapons directed at us,” Netanyahu said.

He also praised the Trump administration for leveling new sanctions on a Lebanese bank that does business with Hezbollah.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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