MOSCOW – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who for months has said Israel will not tolerate an Iranian military presence anywhere in Syria, prioritized matters on Thursday, saying the most important immediate objectives are to remove Iran’s long-range missiles from Syria, and to distance Iranian forces from Israel’s border.
Netanyahu, in a briefing with reporters before heading back to Israel, said that diplomatic pressure is mounting regarding the missiles, with Israel arguing to those saying Iran is needed to fight ISIS in Syria, that if that is the case, why do they need long-range missiles that can reach Beersheba?
This issue came up in Netanyahu’s meeting
on Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We did not have a problem with the Assad regime for 40 years,” Netanyahu said. “Not one bullet was fired on the Golan Heights. What bothered us in the beginning was Islamic State [near Israel’s border], and afterward Iran and Hezbollah were brought there. We will not accept Iran on our border, or anywhere else in Syria. But our emphasis is on two things: getting rid of the missiles and the proximity of Iranian troops to the border.”
Netanyahu said that the Russians have succeeded in distancing Iranian and Hezbollah forces dozens of kilometers from the border, and that there has only been some isolated cases of Iranian or Shia militias coming back to the border disguised as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Netanyahu said that Israel’s position is that it will not tolerate forces on the Golan that will “hurt us.”
To that end, Netanyahu made clear that Israel has certain redlines.
Firstly, the 1974 Separation Agreement that followed the Yom Kippur War in 1973 must be vigorously enforced.
Secondly, if forces such as Islamic State or others try to get to the border, Israel will attack them. Israel, Netanyahu said, has acted against ISIS “all over the world.”
Thirdly, Netanyahu said that Israel will not tolerate any “spillover” from the fighting near its border – either intentional or unintentional – and will act aggressively when it happens, as seen by the downing of the Syrian reconnaissance drone on Wednesday.
And, finally, one of Israel’s objectives along the border is to ensure that Syrian citizens who received humanitarian aid from Israel during the long civil war in the country will not be “slaughtered” when forces loyal to Assad return to the area. This was also raised with Putin.
NETANYAHU STRESSED during his briefing with reporters that Israel is acting with “complete transparency” and is coordinated with the US regarding the situation in Syria. This comment came just hours after US Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted that Israel should be “very careful making agreements with Russia re Syria that affect US interests.”
Graham is one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in the senate. Netanyahu, in his comments, chose to highlight the second part of Graham’s tweet, which said that he does not trust “Russia to police Iran or anyone else in Syria.”
The US, Graham said, must “maintain a presence in Syria to ensure ISIS doesn’t come back and to counter Russia/Iran influence.”
“I agree that we must make sure that Islamic State doesn’t come back,” Netanyahu said. “He is right – but the bigger threat is that Iran will become entrenched there.”
The prime minister would not wade into the US domestic debate, however, about whether the US should or should not have troops in Syria. Israel’s position on this, he said, “is to listen to the American position.”
“It is their decision,” he said. “The US position as I understand it, which was articulated by Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo and others, is that they will not leave until Iran leaves Syria.”
US President Donald Trump raised eyebrows throughout the region a few months ago when he said that he wanted to withdraw the US troops from Syria.
Regarding other issues, Netanyahu – asked if the country was on the cusp on few elections – said that he hoped that they would be held close to their scheduled time, but that the matter was not only in his hands, a reference to Agudat Yisrael’s threat to leave the coalition over the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) enlistment law.
At the end of the briefing, when no one had asked about the ongoing criminal investigations, Netanyahu himself brought up the issue. “Isn’t anyone going to ask about the investigations?” he asked.
“It is nothing,” he said, answering his own question, and altering just a bit his standard mantra of “There will be nothing , because there is nothing.”
“It is nothing,” he said. “With a capital N.”
The prime minister revealed that he has a busy traveling month planned for August that will likely include a meeting with the leaders of the Balkan countries in Croatia, a meeting with the leaders of the Baltic states in one of their countries, and a likely trip to Colombia for the inauguration of the new president there – an event expected to be attended by many Latin American leaders.
In September he is expected to attend the annual General Assembly meeting in New York, as he does almost every year, during which he would also likely meet with Trump.