Netanyahu and May.
(photo credit: GALI TIBBON / AFP,REUTERS)
With the explosive settlement regulations bill waiting for him immediately upon his return on Monday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set off for a 24-hour trip to London on Sunday with Iran – not the settlements – foremost on his mind.
Boarding the plane to London with his wife, Sara, Netanyahu said that setting clear boundaries to Iranian aggression will be the first of many topics he will discuss with British Prime Minister Theresa May. He will also meet with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and it will be the prime minister’s first meeting with both May and Johnson since they took office last summer.
“We are in a period of diplomatic opportunities and challenges,” he said. “The opportunities stem from the fact that there is a new administration in Washington, and a new government in Britain.”
Netanyahu, who will also be meeting with US President Donald Trump for the first time next week, said he intends to talk to both May and Trump about strengthening their bilateral relationships with Israel, as well as strengthening a trilateral US-British-Israel axis.
“The challenges stem from the fact that the Iranians also understand what I just said, and are trying to test the boundaries with extraordinary aggressiveness, brazenness and defiance,” Netanyahu said. “I think the most important thing right now is that countries like the US, which will take the lead, and Israel and Britain line up together against Iran’s aggression and set clear limits.”
Although Netanyahu said Iran will top his agenda in discussions with May, her spokeswoman said last week that she intends to raise the settlement issue with the prime minister, relaying London’s position that “continued increase in settlement activity undermines trust.”
Earlier in the day, at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said that Israel was on the cusp of a “very significant” diplomatic period. There, too, he stressed the Iranian issue, saying that he will emphasize in his talks with the British leaders the need for a “common stand” against the “Iranian aggression that has reared its head in recent days. This needs to be done on a regular basis, especially in light of their defiance of the world order.”
His comments come just days after Trump and his National Security Adviser Michael Flynn put the Iranians “on notice that their disruptive behavior in the region and the world will not be tolerated.
National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz praised Trump for his position on Iran, telling reporters before the cabinet meeting that “finally a US president has stood up and said, ‘We will restrain Iran’s misbehavior and its spread in the Middle East. We will not let them continue to develop ballistic missiles, we will not let them continue to transfer weapons to Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.’”
Netanyahu did not mention in his brief opening remarks to the cabinet the White House statement on settlements issued on Thursday.
The statement said that the US “desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years. While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal. As the president has expressed many times, he hopes to achieve peace throughout the Middle East region.”
The statement said that the Trump administration “has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month.”
Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Trump on February 15.
Steinitz did, however, relate to the White House statement, saying that it was “positive from Israel’s perspective.”
He said the statement was a “fresh, positive” change for Israel that “unequivocally states” that settlements are not an obstacle to peace, and that “building and construction inside the settlements is acceptable to the US.”
He said he did not remember the last time there was such a “reasonable and logical” US statement about settlements.
That sentiment was echoed by Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis, who characterized the statement as “dramatic” and even “revolutionary” in terms of previous US administrations for saying that settlements are not an obstacle to peace. “The obstacle is the Palestinians, who do not want to come talk peace with Israel,” he said.