Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, June 3, 2018.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The tone of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current trip to Europe was set on Monday at a news conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
PM Netanyahu says Iran is also a danger to Germany at a press ocnfernece wirth PM Angela Merkel, June 4, 2018 (GPO)
“We have a difference of opinion as to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [Iranian nuclear deal] and its effectiveness,” Merkel said. “Germany did not cancel this agreement, and together with other European partners, we stand by it.”
Those other European partners – France and Britain, who along with Germany were also partners to the deal – were the next stops on Netanyahu’s four-day trip. He heard the same thing from French President Emmanuel Macron, who said in his news conference with Netanyahu on Tuesday that the JCPOA was an “important milestone.” Netanyahu will surely hear a similar sentiment when he meets British Prime Minister Theresa May in London on Wednesday.
Merkel and Macron’s reaffirmation of the JCPOA as the way to stop Iran from going nuclear came after their experts had seen the material Israel spirited out of Iran from its “nuclear archives”; after Netanyahu presented them with an intelligence dossier about Iran’s intentions; and after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tweeted on Sunday that Israel was a “malignant cancerous tumor” that needed to be “removed and eradicated.”
Netanyahu, who has had his share of meetings with world leaders, was obviously not surprised by this. No one really thinks he went to Europe actually believing that he was going to change the minds of Merkel, Macron and May.
Yet make the trip he did, and he billed it beforehand as a trip very important for Israel’s security.
But if he knew that he was not going to change minds, why go? Why have these discussions? What does he hope to accomplish?
First of all, because the discussions about Iran are not only about the nuclear issue. There is also the issue of Iran’s ballistic missile development, Iran’s meddling in the region and entrenchment in Syria, and its activities in Gaza through Hamas and especially Islamic Jihad.
Before boarding the plane on Monday, Netanyahu said he would talk about two things with the leaders: Iran and Iran. And he meant it. Merkel and Macron also brought up Gaza, and May is expected to do the same. But even when it comes to Gaza, Netanyahu uses it as further proof of Iran’s destabilizing influence throughout the region.
Netanyahu went to Europe to address all of Iran’s activities, in the hope that if Germany, France and Britain are not on board regarding withdrawing from the JCPOA, at least they can cooperate with Israel on the other troubling issues Iran is involved in: ballistic missile development, regional aggression, and destabilizing Gaza.
Regarding the Iran deal, Netanyahu wants to convince the Europeans not to walk out of the deal, but rather to accept the new reality: that the US has withdrawn, and that as a result, the playing field has fundamentally shifted.
He hinted as much in his news conference with Merkel.
“I have not changed my view of the JCPOA, but I think that right now that is becoming a secondary question, because the US has left the deal,” he said. “I think the real question we have to confront is what do we do about Iran’s aggression – what do we do about Iran’s remaining goal and pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
He was even more direct during his news conference with Macron.
“I did not ask President Macron to leave the deal,” he said of the JCPOA. “I think that economic realities are going to decide this matter, so that is not what we focused on. What I focused on is to stop Iranian aggression in the region, and specifically Israel’s goal, which I think should be shared by all those who seek peace and prosperity in the Middle East: a reconstructed Syria. And a precursor to that is that Iran leaves Syria, all of Syria.”
Netanyahu’s goal in these meetings was not to change minds, but rather to convey his opinion that it is not productive to get into a frontal conflict with US President Donald Trump over the issue, and to recognize that even if the European countries do not formally withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement, the very fact that the US has withdrawn has already led numerous companies to decide that they do not want to risk secondary US sanctions, and are therefore pulling out of Iran.
Netanyahu’s argument is that the Europeans should now use this as leverage with the Iranians to pressure them on the ballistic missile issue, and about their activities is the region.
Netanyahu’s clarion call at the UN last September was “fix or nix” the Iranian deal. His message to the Europeans – a message that came out clearly in the nearly 45-minute news conference Tuesday evening in Paris with Macron – is that the US withdrawal has essentially nixed the deal, and that now the Europeans should help fix the region by halting Iran in Syria and elsewhere in the Mideast.
And that is why Netanyahu went to Europe.