Israel and many countries in the region and the world welcome the strategic change in American foreign policy ushered in by President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday.
Netanyahu, speaking in his office before a meeting with visiting Secretary of Defense James Mattis, said that Israel senses “a great change in the direction of American policy.”
He said that this has been made clear by Mattis’s “clear and forthright words” about Iran, which follow “very strong and forthright words on the part of President Trump, and very forthright deeds against the use of chemical weapons by Iran’s proxy, Syria.”
This change, Netanyahu said, “has been appreciated around the world and in our region. I think this is a welcome change, a strategic change of American leadership and American policy.”
James Mattis and Avigdor Liberman (Dana Shraga/ Defense Ministry)
While Netanyahu made no direct reference to former president Barack Obama, his intent was clear.
The prime minister said that Israel and the US share common values and also common dangers. He said the common dangers are “the twin threats of militant Islam” embodied in the Shi’a extremists led by Iran, and the Sunni extremists led by Islamic State.
Netanyahu said that the two countries are committed to thwarting the dangers and seizing the common opportunities that have emerged thanks to a commonality of interests with some of Israel’s Arab neighbors.
Mattis, on his first visit as secretary of defense, responded to Netanyahu: “I think it’s important that we remind ourselves that, if good people don’t band together, then bad people can do a lot of damage in this world. And we’re committed to stopping that and doing whatever it takes to pass on peace and freedom to the next generation.”
Before meeting with Netanyahu, Mattis – the first cabinet secretary in the new Trump Administration to visit Israel – was warmly welcomed by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. Liberman said he hopes to see more sanctions placed on Iran.
“There is no doubt that main problem for us and around the world is the axis of evil from North Korea to Tehran to Damascus to Hezbollah in Beirut,” he said. “No doubt that the main link in this chain is Iran, which is trying to undermine stability in all the Middle East, in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and of course against Israel through their proxies.”
According to Liberman, while Israel “is not in a position to give any advice to the United States” on whether or not Tehran is complying with the nuclear deal signed in July of 2015, Jerusalem is happy to see the new Trump administration carrying out a policy review.
The administration, which will complete its first 100 days in office on May 1, has taken a “completely new approach” to countries such as North Korea, Syria and Iran, Liberman said, adding that “there is a clear message to the Iranian regime and we are very satisfied.”
While Israel is “patient” to wait for concrete steps, it is nonetheless clear that the Islamic Republic remains the biggest sponsor of world terrorism, and the continuation of support to create more proxies and more militias is a major concern for both the United States and Israel. “It is crucial to place more pressure and more sanctions on the Iranian regime,” Liberman said.
Mattis said Tehran seems to be complying with the nuclear deal, but that Washington recognizes the need to confront the “destabilizing activities of Iran, which continues to threaten Israel and its neighbors in the region with ballistic missiles, through its maritime and cyber activities, as well as through its proxies and surrogates such as Lebanese Hezbollah, a terrorist organization working to keep Assad in power in Syria.”
Echoing statements made by senior IDF officials that the Assad regime in Syria still has stockpiles of chemical weapons such as sarin nerve gas, Liberman said Jerusalem has information that has made it “100% clear Assad used chemical weapons, and we strongly support the American strikes in Syria,” which he said sent a new message to Damascus.
Mattis, who said that the Syrian regime has dispersed its aircraft, warned it against further use of chemical weapons.
“The bottom line is that the Syrian regime has retained chemical weapons in violation of its agreement and its statement that they have removed them all. The amount we won’t get into right now, because we don’t want to reveal how we are finding out. I can say authoritatively that they have retained some and they are ill-advised to use any again. We made that very clear with our strike.”
The 10-year, $38 billion Memorandum of Understanding on military aid from 2019 through 2028 signed between the two allies showcases Washington’s “absolute and unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and to its qualitative edge over Iran or other threats,” Mattis said.
Mattis seemed to be taking a different tone to his stance in 2013, when he called the situation between Israel and the Palestinians “unsustainable” and blamed the settlements for harming prospects for peace, warning that they could turn Israel into an apartheid state.
“I believe in Israel’s security. Whatever it takes to keep Israel secure is where we stand and where we will always stand as Americans,” he said on Friday.
“How Israel achieves its level of sustainable security is absolutely critical and it includes all the peoples here inside the borders of Israel or inside the Middle East. All these people have to work together to resolve it and it will have to be done in a way that looks out for the rights of all peoples,” Mattis said.