On Iran, 'the world must stop burying its head in the sand'

Palestinians should be on trial, not Israel, says newly installed foreign minister

In inaugural speech, Eli Cohen announces next Negev Summit in Morocco, says Israel will talk less on Russia-Ukraine war; will speak with Russian counterpart Lavrov on Tuesday

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen speaks at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen speaks at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said on Monday that the Palestinian leadership should be on trial instead of Israel, accusing the Palestinian Authority of incentivizing terror attacks on Jews.

“The international community must send a clear message to the Palestinian leadership,” said Cohen in his inaugural address to Foreign Ministry diplomats and workers in Jerusalem. “Enough incitement in educational institutions and funding the murderers of Jews.”

Cohen made his remarks shortly after meeting his predecessor Yair Lapid, whose tenure as foreign and prime minister came to an end last week. According to the Foreign Ministry, the two discussed Israel-US ties, the Iranian threat and expanding the Abraham Accords.

The United Nations General Assembly on Friday night voted to approve a resolution requesting that the International Court of Justice intervene and render an opinion on the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In his address, Cohen called the move “evidence of the Palestinians’ hypocrisy,” accusing them of rejecting all peace overtures over the last 75 years.

The former intelligence and economy minister also indicated that there would be some changes in Israel’s approach to the war in Ukraine. “We will do one thing for sure — talk less,” he promised.

A general view of a session of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, on October 1, 2018. (Bas ZERWINSKI/ANP/AFP)

While the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government opted not to take sides in the 10-month-long war, Lapid and other ministers denounced Russia by name on several occasions, including on the first day of the invasion.

Cohen added that the cabinet was in the process of formulating a “responsible policy” toward the conflict, and noted that Israel’s humanitarian aid to Ukraine would continue.

He is slated to speak with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday, but did not mention any upcoming calls with Ukrainian officials.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad arrive for a meeting in Moscow on August 23, 2022. (Natalia Kolesnikova/Pool/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to finalize his policy toward Kyiv and Moscow, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel. He relayed that message to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky after his election.

Though Israel has supplied humanitarian aid and some non-lethal equipment, such as helmets and flak jackets, Ukrainian officials have repeatedly pressed — without success — for air defense weapons.

The reasoning behind the decision appears to be Israel’s strategic need to maintain freedom of operations in Syria, as part of its efforts to prevent Iranian entrenchment on its doorstep. To that end, Israel cooperates with the Russian military, which largely controls Syria’s airspace.

While Russia has shown frustration at Israel over its stated sympathy for Kyiv around the ongoing war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin might be optimistic about Netanyahu’s return. Last month, an official delegation from the Moscow city government visited Israel, a visit unlikely to have occurred without a green light from Putin as Netanyahu prepared to officially take the reins in Israel.

People stand next to a damaged building at the scene of a Russian strike on Kyiv, Ukraine, Dec. 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Cohen, 50, also addressed the Abraham Accords in his speech, announcing that the next meeting of the Negev Forum would take place in March in Morocco. A year before, Israeli, American and Arab diplomats met in the Negev desert, agreeing that the conference would become a regular forum rotating between the participating countries.

“The expansion of the Abraham Accords is not a question of if, but when,” Cohen pledged.

Netanyahu is planning to officially visit the United Arab Emirates for the first time within the next two weeks, sources close to the premier confirmed to The Times of Israel on Monday.

Closing their talks at the Negev Summit, (from left) Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, and United Arab Emirates’ Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, pose for a photograph, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

The visit would be Netanyahu’s first since his comeback as prime minister. The exact dates and itinerary are still being worked out, according to the source.

Ties between Israel and the UAE were established two years ago as part of the Abraham Accords.

One of Netanyahu’s foremost goals since signing the historic accords with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in September 2020 has been peace with Saudi Arabia, as he has stated several times since.

While Morocco and Sudan also joined the accords later, Riyadh has been reluctant, though it is widely believed to maintain robust clandestine ties with Israel.

Cohen addressed the Iran nuclear threat as well on Monday, saying that Israel will focus on expanding its military capabilities while creating an international front united against Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani waves as he leaves after talks at the Coburg Palais, the venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna on August 4, 2022. (Alex Halada/AFP)

In the past two years, the Israel Defense Forces has ramped up efforts to prepare a credible military threat against Tehran’s nuclear sites, as Iran looks increasingly unlikely to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

“The countries of the world must stop burying their head in the sand,” Cohen declared.

The landmark 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal was designed to prevent Iran from secretly developing a nuclear bomb, a goal the Islamic Republic has always denied. It has been hanging by a thread, however, since the unilateral withdrawal of the United States in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump.

Negotiations in Vienna aimed at reviving the nuclear deal are stalled.

Iran’s state media announced last month that it had begun producing enriched uranium at 60 percent purity at the country’s underground Fordo nuclear plant, in addition to enrichment to the same level at a plant in Natanz that it said had begun in 2019.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to US President Joe Biden, from a Likud office in Tel Aviv on November 7, 2022. (Courtesy Likud)

Cohen opened his speech by affirming that Israel’s relationship with the US “stands at the top of our priorities.”

“There is no replacement for Israel-US ties,” he said. “This is a long-term strategic partnership based first and foremost on shared values and on interests that we share.”

He was scheduled to speak with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday afternoon.

Cohen also said Israel is a key partner for Europe, and has an opportunity to deepen its ties with the EU.

Most Popular
read more: