PM to gauge Europe's attitude on Iran

Oren: Jerusalem is "far from even contemplating" an attack against Teheran's nuclear installations.

Michael Oren 248 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Michael Oren 248 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be taking Europe's temperature during his upcoming trip to London and Berlin, on the possibility of imposing crippling sanctions on Iran if it refuses Washington's offer of engagement over its nuclear program. While most of the pre-visit attention given to Netanyahu's trip next week to England and Germany has focused on his scheduled August 26 meeting in London with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, one of the major subjects of his discussion with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be how to respond if Iran continues to snub US President Barack Obama's engagement offer. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said Netanyahu would be interested in sensing what, if anything, had changed in Europe's attitudes toward sanctions on Iran, following June's election in Teheran and the bloody aftermath. Senior Israeli officials have been saying for months that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's iron fist policy toward the protesters has led to a greater willingness in European public opinion for the imposition of harsh sanctions on Teheran. The US, France, Britain and Germany are currently discussing sanction options if Iran does not respond positively to Obama's engagement offer by the end of the UN General Assembly meeting in late September. Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren said in a CNN interview on Sunday that Jerusalem was "far from even contemplating" an attack against Iran's nuclear installations, and was comforted by Obama's assurances that the US would move up its reassessment of where things were headed with Iran, from the end of the year to September. Asked by CNN's Fareed Zakaria whether former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton's recent assessment that Israel would attack Iran before the end of the year was accurate, Oren replied, "I don't think it's true, I think that we are far from even contemplating such things right now." He added that "the government of Israel has supported President Obama in his approach to Iran, initially the engagement, the outreach to Iran." When the interviewer dismissed Oren's statement, saying it was "well known that the government of Israel is deeply uncomfortable and nervous with the idea of engagement with Iran," Oren replied, "We were, but we were greatly comforted during the prime minister's visit here in May, when the president told the prime minister there would be a serious reassessment of the engagement policy before the end of the year. And we are further reassured now, that the end-of-the-year deadline has been moved up to September [and] we actually have a date when it's going to occur." According to Oren, Israel was "comforted by the fact that the administration, in the aftermath of recent events in Iran, has exhibited greater willingness to consider formulating a package of sanctions against Iran even now, in advance of the reassessment." Among the measures currently under consideration are an embargo on refined petrol exports to Iran, which make up some 40 percent of Iran's annual fuel consumption. Such a measure, it is believed, would be widely felt by all Iranians if imposed. Other measures expected to be discussed at a meeting of the UN Security Council in late September, as well as a meeting of the G-20 the same week in Pittsburgh, are bans on insurance for companies doing business with Iran, additional sanctions against Iranian banks, bans on investment, and the possibility of terminating Iranian landing and docking rights at airports and seaports around the world. Both Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are expected to attend the UN General Assembly meeting in September, with Lieberman already having scheduled a number of meetings with colleagues from around the world. While Netanyahu has not formally announced that he will be going to New York, he is expected to do so. Sources close to the prime minister said Netanyahu was not going to London and Berlin bringing any list of his own that would spell out specific sanctions Israel thought should be imposed on Iran. Netanyahu will meet Brown in London on August 25, and Merkel in Berlin two days later. On August 26 he is scheduled to meet again with Mitchell, whom he met last on July 27, to continue discussions about how to relaunch the diplomatic process with the Palestinians. Netanyahu's envoy on the Palestinian issue, Yitzhak Molcho, is expected to meet Monday in Washington with administration officials to prepare for that meeting. Senior sources in the Prime Minister's Office said there was no guarantee that the outstanding issues with the US - first and foremost the question of a settlement freeze - would be resolved at that meeting. A number of issues still need to be worked out, including the length of a settlement freeze, with Israel reportedly willing to halt any new projects for six months, but wanting to continue building some 2,500 units in the large settlement blocs during this period. The US reportedly wants a moratorium on new housing starts in the settlements to continue for a longer period. Other issues that remain unresolved include an "exit strategy" for ending the freeze. Israel wants the US to agree in writing that if negotiations with the Palestinians break down, or if the Arab countries do not come forward with any normalization gestures, Israel would be able to continue building according to the parameters agreed upon with the Bush administration. According to Israel's interpretation of these parameters, construction can continue inside the settlements within the existing construction lines. In the large settlement blocs, according to this interpretation, construction is also allowed immediately adjacent to the existing construction lines. One question that diplomatic officials said had come up in the talks was whether Ariel should be considered a settlement bloc or not. The widespread feeling among diplomatic officials is that when and if Israel and the US reach an agreement on a settlement freeze, it would be just a matter of time before Israeli-Palestinian talks were renewed. There is also expectation that once these talks begin, some Arab countries - such as Morocco, Bahrain and perhaps other Persian Gulf countries, such as Oman and Qatar - would ante up with some normalization gestures toward Israel.