In appearances on news shows in the US and speaking to a Christian media summit in Jerusalem and to his own cabinet ministers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent much of Sunday in a spirited defense of US President Donald Trump’s decision to decertify the Iran deal.
In a speech to members of the Christian media at the Israel Museum, Netanyahu said that Trump “correctly identified” that Iran was not part of the solution in the Middle East but, rather, the central problem and the “source of so much terror, so much aggression and so much misery” in the region.
“He took a very courageous step,” Netanyahu said, “because he could have kicked the can forward, he could have said it is not going to happen on my watch – Iran is going to become a nuclear power with a nuclear arsenal, but it won’t happen on my watch. He said ‘No.’ “It is the duty of leaders, perhaps the most difficult duty of leaders, to warn of danger before it becomes apparent to everyone, because when it becomes apparent to everyone, it may be too late.”
Asked to characterize his relationship with Trump, Netanyahu responded: “Our relationship is fine, it is excellent, there is a sense of warmth and instinctive understanding on many important things.”
He said that while he did have “some differences” with former president Barack Obama, those differences “did not alter the solidity of the American-Israeli alliance,” and that the relationship between the countries “transcends differences that we may have over particular issues.”
At the same time, he said, Iran “was not just another issue, it is existential.”
Netanyahu told the members of the Christian media that Israel “has no better friends in the world than the Christian communities around the world,” and urged the Christian press to spend time reporting on the persecution facing the Christian community in Iran.
In Iran, Netanyahu said, “Christians have been lashed for sipping wine during prayer services, brutally tortured for doing nothing more than practicing their faith. Some world leaders are willing to ignore this oppression and seek to appease Iran, but I am not one of them,” he said.
“I think that how a country treats religious minorities is a very good indicator of how it will treat its other citizens and its neighbors.”
Earlier in the day, in a Fox News interview, Netanyahu said he had no preference to whether the nuclear deal was canceled or changed, as long as the Islamic Republic’s path to nuclear weapons was blocked.
“I’m focused on the goal,” he said. “The goal is to prevent Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons, and you could achieve it either by fixing this bad deal or by nixing it. I don’t particularly care which one, but it’s the result we want to have.”
Netanyahu said three elements were important to change. The first is to do away with the sunset clauses that automatically remove restrictions at certain dates down the road. The second is to prevent Iran from developing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
And the final element is to ensure there are “real” inspections.
“Right now,” Netanyahu said, “Iran doesn’t allow you to inspect military sites. It lets you inspect everywhere else.
Well, where do you think they are going to hide these things?” These are the changes that need to “go through,” Netanyahu said. “If you get it, fine; if you don’t get it, cancel the deal.”
Netanyahu praised Trump for saying that he will not allow “this bad deal to go through,” and that if the other world powers that signed on to the deal – France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China – want to save it, they need to change it. Netanyahu said Trump made clear to those countries, which have said they plan to remain in the deal, that “the only way you guys can save the deal is by helping amend it, fixing it, and that’s something that I think will have a great leverage down the line.”
Netanyahu dismissed the notion that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps may take retaliatory action. “If they act against us, that would be a very big mistake,” he said.
And to his cabinet ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said that he believed that “every responsible government, and anyone who wants to promote peace and security in the world, needs to take advantage of this opportunity that President Trump’s decision created to improve or cancel the agreement and, of course, to stop Iranian aggression.”
Other ministers also chimed in with praise for Trump.
Construction Minister Yoav Gallant (Kulanu) characterized Trump’s step as “direct, genuine and courageous.” The message Trump sent, Gallant told reporters before the meeting, is that “if a state strives to develop nuclear weapons and the missiles to carry them, and in parallel spreads terrorism and takes imperialistic actions in the Middle East from Yemen to Syria, then the time has come for someone to stop it.”
Communications Minister Ayoub Kara (Likud) said that the move proves unequivocally that Trump, “in contrast to the way some people are trying to present him, is the biggest friend of the people of Israel and the prime minister.”
Kara said that what Trump is doing for Israel’s future “is not a given,” and that the changes he wants to put into the agreement are good not only for Israel but for Saudi Arabia and the entire region. Stressing that the Saudi king also praised Trump’s move, Kara said that the move is a significant step toward the possibility of convening a regional conference in the US in the near future.
Netanyahu, during his brief comments before the cabinet meeting, also referred to his directive last week to the Foreign Ministry to prepare Israel’s withdrawal from UNESCO, saying that the organization consistently gave a platform to anti-Israel and essentially antisemitic positions.
In an apparent reference to the organization’s election on Friday of former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay to lead the organization, Netanyahu said that Israel is hoping that UNESCO will change its direction, but is not placing any great hopes on that possibility.
As a result, he said, his directive to leave the organization stands, and work toward implementing this policy will move forward.
Israel is expected to leave the organizations in parallel with the US, which has announced it will do so by the end of 2018.