US DEFENSE SECRETARY Jim Mattis (right) arrives in Israel for a two-day visit yesterday.
(photo credit: MATTY STERN/U.S. EMBASSY TEL AVIV)
Israel’s concern about Iran establishing a permanent base in Syria the day after the civil war there ends will feature prominently when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets US Defense Secretary James Mattis on Friday, senior diplomatic officials said on Thursday.
Netanyahu is expected to meet with Mattis, who arrived in Israel on Thursday for his first visit as defense secretary, at his Jerusalem office following the latter’s meeting earlier in the day with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in Tel Aviv.
Just over a month ago, Netanyahu flew to Russia, where he raised the alarm about Iran’s designs in a post-civil war Syria during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Netanyahu-Mattis talks, according to Israeli officials, will also deal with Iran’s deploying proxies in the region, as well as the general situation in Syria and Islamic State.
The remarks regarding the discussion with Mattis about Iran come a day after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stepped up the rhetoric against the Islamic Republic, accusing it of “alarming and ongoing provocations that export terror and violence, destabilizing more than one country at a time.”
In comments that were noted and welcomed in Jerusalem, Tillerson said, “Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining US interests in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon and continuing to support attacks against Israel.”
Tillerson specifically criticized Tehran’s intense involvement in Syria and its support of President Bashar Assad.
Mattis, meanwhile, following meetings in Riyadh on Wednesday with senior Saudi official, said that Iran’s disruptive efforts in the area, and the instability it has caused, has “got to be ended.” He added that, “Everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran.”
Mattis is known as a hawk on Iran-related issues, and during a trip to London last month he recalled a statement he made in 2012, in which he said that the three gravest threats to American national security were “Iran, Iran, and Iran.” This echoed a statement Liberman made at the Munich Security Conference in February, in which he said that the main challenges facing the region were “Iran, Iran, Iran.”
“At the time when I spoke about Iran, I was commander of the US Central Command and [saying] that [Iran] was the primary exporter of terrorism, frankly, it was the primary state sponsor of terrorism and it continues that kind of behavior today,” Mattis said in March.
In addition to the regional issues, Netanyahu and Mattis are also expected to devote some of their time to discussing the bilateral security cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem.
Greeted by members of the American Embassy in Tel Aviv and the IDF’s defense attaché in Washington, Maj.-Gen. Mickey Edelstein, Mattis arrived from Cairo on the third leg of a five-country Middle East tour the Pentagon has said is meant to discuss how to “defeat extremist terror organizations.”
Marking the first time he has visited the Jewish state as Pentagon chief, Mattis will be greeted by an official honor guard at General Staff headquarters in Tel Aviv on Friday morning before meeting with Liberman.
The two are then scheduled to hold a brief press conference.
Mattis is also set to meet with President Reuven Rivlin and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot.
Liberman told The Jerusalem Post
that Mattis “has a great amount of experience in this region and understands its complexities.”
Mattis has been critical of Israel’s settlement policies in the past, saying in July 2013, shortly after leaving as CENTCOM head, that the current situation between Israel and the Palestinians is “unsustainable.”
After concluding his visit to Israel, Mattis is to head to Qatar, which hosts the US military’s central Middle East air operations center at the Al-Udeid Air Base, and then to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which the US military uses to conduct drone missions over Somalia and Yemen.