Iran in focus as Netanyahu begins diplomatic week in New York

Netanyahu ends Latin America visit in Mexico, where he lauds “great friendship” between Mexico and Israel.

September 17, 2017 07:57
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu en route to South America, September

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu en route to South America, September 10, 2017.. (photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)


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NEW YORK – The threat posed by Iran is expected to be a major focus of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, as well as a top priority in his talks Monday with US President Donald Trump.

Netanyahu advised reporters accompanying him on his trip to wait until after his meeting with the president before drawing conclusions regarding the US policy toward the Islamic Republic.

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A scarecrow model is set on fire by Iranian demonstratorson during the annual pro-Palestinian rally marking Al-Quds Day in Tehran, Iran, June 23, 2017. NAZANIN TABATABAEE YAZDI/ TIMA VIA REUTERS

While Thursday’s decision in Washington to extend sanctions relief as mandated by the 2015 nuclear agreement indicates that Trump has no immediate intention to carry out his campaign pledge and scuttle the accord, the US is taking a much firmer stand than before regarding Tehran’s ballistic missile program and overall destabilization of the region.

Netanyahu said during his trip to Latin America that Israel’s position remains the same: either change the agreement or scrap it.

The diplomatic process with the Palestinians will also feature prominently in the premier’s meeting with Trump, who also is expected to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this week.

Israeli diplomatic officials accompanying the prime minister discussed a “diplomatic war of attrition” the Palestinians were waging, noting that their decision not to push forward last week with their bid to join the World Tourism Organization came following intensive US pressure, and that they will now ask for something in return.

As Netanyahu readies for his meeting with Trump, one senior diplomatic official said that while he is interested in an agreement with Abbas, he does not see one anywhere on the horizon.

After four days in Argentina, Colombia and Mexico where the Palestinian issue did not feature either in the public declarations of the three presidents Netanyahu met or in their private meetings, that situation is expected to change dramatically in New York.

Shortly before Netanyahu landed in New York on Friday, the Israeli Consulate reopened after a package containing white powder and an English-language threat to the prime minister was delivered there earlier in the day.

The Israeli Consulate was closed and sealed shut as inspections were made and the staff was ordered to remain indoors until the reopening.

The prime minister flew to New York after a day in Mexico City where he met with President Enrique Peña Nieto and said the diplomatic issue would not have been raised in that meeting had he not done so himself.

“I raised the Palestinian issue,” he said in a briefing with reporters, explaining that he then gave a brief talk to Peña Nieto and almost half his cabinet at the meeting on how neither the conflict with the Palestinians nor the settlements were at the heart of the problems plaguing the Middle East.

Had he not raised the matter, he said, it would not have even come up.

Wrapping up his visit to Latin America, Netanyahu said the fact that the presidents of three important countries publicly embraced Israel is a sign of the Jewish state’s rising stature in the region and the world.

“The leaders themselves are the best seismographs,” Netanyahu told reporters after a four-hour meeting with Peña Nieto at the Los Pinos presidential residence in Mexico City on Thursday. “They understand that not only does the public not have a problem with their public embrace of Israel, but it has benefits. There is a lot of sympathy [for Israel],” he said.

Netanyahu, who characterized Israel’s relationship with Mexico as a “great friendship,” said he was not surprised by the warmth of his reception in Latin America. What did surprise him, he said, was the lack of protest and criticism in the media, especially because he was warned beforehand that Israel has a problem in Latin America.

“Maybe in Venezuela,” he quipped, but not in the countries he visited.

A tweet Netanyahu posted in January that was interpreted as support for Trump’s desire to build a wall with Mexico and infuriated the Mexican government and the Jewish community did not come up when the prime minister and Peña Nieto held a press conference, with one senior Israeli diplomatic saying the two countries have “turned the page” on the issue.

It also did not prevent hundreds of members of the 45,000-strong Jewish community from giving Netanyahu a rousing ovation when he spoke Thursday at the local Jewish center.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuand wfie Sara at an event for the Jewish community in Mexico City, September 14, 2017. AVI OHAYON - GPO

Following his meeting with Netanyahu, Peña Nieto thanked the Jewish community for its “valuable contributions to the economic, social and cultural development of the country.”

He also said that its members were an important source of employment for the country.

According to Jewish community figures, Jews comprise 0.35% of the Mexican population, but provide 10% of the country’s jobs.

During the leaders’ meeting, the two sides agreed to upgrade and modernize the free-trade agreement between their countries, which is outdated and does not provide any provisions for new developments such as e-trade.

They also signed agreements governing cooperation between the countries’ space programs, and in tourism, aviation and international development.

Peña Nieto asked Israel to become involved in development programs in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, in what is called Central America’s Northern Triangle. Mexico and the US are cooperating in providing development aid there in an effort to stabilize their economies and prevent migration northward.

During his statement alongside Peña Nieto, Netanyahu apologized for this being the first time an Israeli prime minister ever visited the country, saying it was “an unpardonable lapse, but we want pardon.”

Netanyahu said this visit corrected that “historic lapse because Mexico is a great country.It’s one of the world’s great economies, it’s a great nation, a great people, a great culture. We want to be close, even closer to Mexico, and this is what this meeting signifies.”

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