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(photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stepped back on Tuesday from former Mossad head Meir Dagan’s appraisal that Iran will not get nuclear weapons until the middle of the decade.
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These were “only” intelligence assessments and should be seen as such, he said.
“I think that intelligence estimates are exactly that, estimates,” Netanyahu said. “They range from best case to worst case possibilities, and there is a range there, there is room for differing assessments.”
Speaking at the prime minister’s annual press conference with the foreign press, Netanyahu made clear that he believed the Iranian threat had not in any way become less acute, and reiterated what he said two months ago in New Orleans – and for which he was chastised publicly by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – that sanctions needed to be backed up by a viable and serious military option.
Since the US-led sanctions against Iran were aimed at changing the Iranian government’s determination to obtain nuclear arms, “those sanctions have not yet achieved their objective,” the prime minister said. “I think they [the sanctions] should be strictly enforced and materially strengthened.”
Netanyahu said “the only chance these sanctions will achieve their objectives would be to couple them with an understanding from Iran that if they [the sanctions] don’t achieve their goal, they would be followed by a credible military option.”
Netanyahu, clearly unhappy with the idea that the world has somehow gained a great deal more time to deal with Teheran, said that the only time the Iranians halted their nuclear program over the last 15 years was in 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq, when they feared American military action. The diplomatic process with the Palestinians would be halted, and the vital interests of almost every Arab government in the region would be threatened, were the Iranian nuclear program not stopped, he said.
Regarding the recent escalation in Gaza, Netanyahu said that Hamas and the other organizations there “shelling and rocketing Israel” will “make a terrible mistake to test our will to defend our people; I think they will make a terrible, terrible mistake.”
Turning to the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, he said that 2011 would reveal “who is seriously interested in peace in the region.”
The prime minister spoke against what he said was the conventional wisdom – that the Palestinian Authority wanted peace, while he and his government were not interested – saying that while Israel had taken a number of steps to further the process along, the Palestinians had done nothing.
Netanyahu enumerated the steps he has taken: calling for direct negotiations; removing hundreds of West Bank roadblocks to allow the economy there to flourish; accepting the two-state vision in his speech at Bar-Ilan University; agreeing to a 10-month settlement freeze; and then agreeing to another three-month freeze after negotiating the conditions with the Americans.
The reason this additional freeze did not go into effect, he said, was not because there was no agreement with the US, but because the US decided that the additional freeze would do nothing to move the process forward.
“What is preventing the advent of peace negotiations is that the Palestinians are doing everything in their power to avoid them,” he said. “This is the simple truth.”
Only his government would “be trusted by the public” to deliver a peace agreement that would ensure security and Palestinian recognition of Israel, and the Palestinians were making a mistake walking away from talks with him, he said.
As far as the Syrian track was concerned, Netanyahu said that the peace agreement with Egypt was reached only after Anwar Sadat took Egypt out of the Soviet camp. A similar break from Iran would be necessary for Syrian President Bashar Assad to make peace with Israel, Netanyahu said, adding that he did not see “any clear willingness” on the part of Damascus to change its relationship with Teheran.
Netanyahu deflected charges that a bad, undemocratic wind was blowing through the country, noting that he had immediately condemned a call last month by rabbis not to sell or rent apartments to Arabs.
“I am committed to Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, with democratic values,” he said, adding that his swift condemnation of the rabbis’ call demonstrated the country’s values.
By contrast, he said, 10 minutes away in Ramallah there is a law on the PA books calling for the death penalty to anyone who sells property to Jews.
“Isn’t that worth reporting?” he asked.
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