Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s frustration at the Iranian nuclear deal surfaced Thursday when a routine photo-op with visiting British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond turned into a testy, but still diplomatic, exchange over the accord.
Netanyahu challenged Hammond after the foreign secretary professed before their meeting that Britain was taking firm action to “tackle anti-Semitism wherever it appears.” A day earlier Hammond had said in Britain’s parliament that “Tel Aviv” does not want any deal with Iran and prefers a “permanent state of stand-off.”
While saying that Israel appreciates Britain’s stand on anti-Semitism, Netanyahu asked whether it would not therefore have behooved Britain, and the other members of the P5+1 that negotiated with Iran, to take the Iranians to task for their anti-Semitism.
UK's Hammond: Israel doesn't want any deal with Iran, it wants a permanent state of stand-off
Just four days before the signing of the agreement, Netanyahu said that the “so called moderate president” of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, presided over rallies chanting “Death to Israel” and burning Israeli flags.
“A few days before the signing of the agreement, Iran says that the destruction of Israel is non-negotiable,” Netanyahu said. “So the question I have is, would it not make sense for your government and the other powers of the P5+1 to condemn powerfully this expression of anti-Semitism, this desire to annihilate the Jewish state, and to demand that Iran cease and desist such genocidal calls and actions, as part of your ongoing campaign of anti-Semitism?”
Netanyahu said he finds it “perplexing” that an “unreformed, unrepentant Iran that seeks continuously to wipe us off the map” and dispatches “killers to kill our people, and not only our people,” is given sanctions relief.
“We would have wanted to see a deal that says the following: Iran, you will get the easing on the restrictions on your nuclear program, and you will get sanctions relief if you change your behavior first,” he said. “In fact, there is no requirement for any change of behavior on the part of Iran, which is what makes this deal so fundamentally flawed.”
Hammond, not to be out-debated, asked to respond, and said that while he understands these concerns, “we have always been clear that this deal was about the nuclear file – the sanctions regime is around Iran’s illegal nuclear activities.”
The Iranians, he pointed out, were also chanting “Death to America and Death to Britain.”
But, he added, “We will judge Iran not by the chants of the crowds on the streets of Tehran, but by the actions of its government and their agents around the region. And we are not naïve about this; we understand that our many disputes with Iran about its regional conduct will remain, and will have to be dealt with in the months and years to come.”
Hammond said that while every dispute with Iran was not settled in Vienna, by removing the nuclear threat it is now possible to “move on to the next stage.” Netanyahu, in no mood to let Hammond have the last say, looked at him and said, “You want another bounce of the ball?” After Hammond said that he knows that Netanyahu will have the last word anyhow, Netanyahu said that when it comes to chanting “Death to Israel,” the Iranians are not just mouthing a chant, but actually working “for our destruction.”
“They surround us with missiles,” he said. “They try to target us with hundreds of thousands of missiles, thousands of which have already been fired on us, Iranian missiles, so it’s not just a declaration.”
“Would you like to continue?” Netanyahu said of the rhetorical volley.
“Let’s go and do it upstairs,” Hammond replied.
Even before the quite unusual backand- forth between the two men, Netanyahu clearly, but politely, expressed his annoyance with Hammond’s comments in the British parliament.
The kind of deal “that would be welcomed in Tel Aviv – and here in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem” is one that would roll back Iran’s military program and link lifting sanctions to changes in the Islamic Republic’s behavior, he said.
“Israelis know better than anyone else the cost of permanent conflict with Iran, and it is wrong to suggest that Israel wants such an outcome,” Netanyahu added. “We seek a genuine and effective diplomatic solution. But Israelis also know exactly what would happen if we ever let our guard down. The result of that would be truly permanent.”
Hammond used his brief opening statement to defend the deal, saying that by removing the threat of an Iranian bomb it will perhaps be able to “build over time the trust that will allow a dialogue on the many other issues we have with Iran.”
The British foreign secretary, who made his first visit in this position a year ago during Operation Protective Edge, also said that there is “an urgent need for progress towards a lasting peace settlement” with the Palestinians.
Without such process, he warned, “there is a risk that Israel’s standing with public opinion around the world will decline further. That is a concern for me and a concern for all friends of Israel.”