PM: Our prob­lem is with Iran, not As­sad

Back from Moscow, Ne­tanyahu says re­mov­ing Ira­ni­ans is fi­nal ob­jec­tive

Jerusalem Post - - FRONT PAGE - • By HERB KEINON Jerusalem Post Cor­re­spon­dent (Amos Ben Ger­shom/GPO)

MOSCOW – Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, who for months has said Is­rael will not tol­er­ate an Ira­nian mil­i­tary pres­ence any­where in Syria, pri­or­i­tized mat­ters on Thurs­day, say­ing the most im­por­tant im­me­di­ate ob­jec­tives are to re­move Iran’s long-range missiles from Syria, and to dis­tance Ira­nian forces from Is­rael’s bor­der.

Ne­tanyahu, in a brief­ing with re­porters be­fore head­ing back to Is­rael, said that diplo­matic pres­sure is mount­ing re­gard­ing the missiles, with Is­rael ar­gu­ing to those say­ing Iran is needed to fight ISIS in Syria, that if that is the case, why do they need long-range missiles that can reach Beer­sheba?

This is­sue came up in Ne­tanyahu’s meet­ing on Wednes­day with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

“We did not have a prob­lem with the As­sad regime for 40 years,” Ne­tanyahu said. “Not one bul­let was fired on the Golan Heights. What both­ered us in the be­gin­ning was Is­lamic State [near Is­rael’s bor­der], and af­ter­ward Iran and Hezbol­lah were brought there. We will not ac­cept Iran on our bor­der, or any­where else in Syria. But our em­pha­sis is on two things: get­ting rid of the missiles and the prox­im­ity of Ira­nian troops to the bor­der.”

Ne­tanyahu said that the Rus­sians have suc­ceeded in dis­tanc­ing Ira­nian and Hezbol­lah forces dozens of kilo­me­ters from the bor­der, and that there has only been some iso­lated cases of Ira­nian or Shia mili­tias com­ing back to the bor­der dis­guised as Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s forces.

Ne­tanyahu said that Is­rael’s po­si­tion is that it will not tol­er­ate forces on the Golan that will “hurt us.”

To that end, Ne­tanyahu made clear that Is­rael has cer­tain red­lines.

Firstly, the 1974 Sep­a­ra­tion Agree­ment that fol­lowed the Yom Kip­pur War in 1973 must be vig­or­ously en­forced.

Se­condly, if forces such as Is­lamic State or oth­ers try to get to the bor­der, Is­rael will at­tack them. Is­rael, Ne­tanyahu said, has acted against ISIS “all over the world.”

Thirdly, Ne­tanyahu said that Is­rael will not

tol­er­ate any “spillover” from the fight­ing near its bor­der – ei­ther in­ten­tional or un­in­ten­tional – and will act ag­gres­sively when it hap­pens, as seen by the down­ing of the Syr­ian re­con­nais­sance drone on Wednes­day.

And, fi­nally, one of Is­rael’s ob­jec­tives along the bor­der is to en­sure that Syr­ian ci­ti­zens who re­ceived hu­man­i­tar­ian aid from Is­rael dur­ing the long civil war in the coun­try will not be “slaugh­tered” when forces loyal to As­sad re­turn to the area. This was also raised with Putin. NE­TANYAHU STRESSED dur­ing his brief­ing with re­porters that Is­rael is act­ing with “com­plete trans­parency” and is co­or­di­nated with the US re­gard­ing the sit­u­a­tion in Syria. This com­ment came just hours af­ter US Se­na­tor Lind­sey Gra­ham tweeted that Is­rael should be “very care­ful mak­ing agree­ments with Rus­sia re Syria that af­fect US in­ter­ests.”

Gra­ham is one of Is­rael’s staunch­est sup­port­ers in the se­nate. Ne­tanyahu, in his com­ments, chose to high­light the sec­ond part of Gra­ham’s tweet, which said that he does not trust “Rus­sia to po­lice Iran or any­one else in Syria.”

The US, Gra­ham said, must “main­tain a pres­ence in Syria to en­sure ISIS doesn’t come back and to counter Rus­sia/Iran in­flu­ence.”

“I agree that we must make sure that Is­lamic State doesn’t come back,” Ne­tanyahu said. “He is right – but the big­ger threat is that Iran will be­come en­trenched there.”

The prime min­is­ter would not wade into the US do­mes­tic de­bate, how­ever, about whether the US should or should not have troops in Syria. Is­rael’s po­si­tion on this, he said, “is to lis­ten to the Amer­i­can po­si­tion.”

“It is their de­ci­sion,” he said. “The US po­si­tion as I un­der­stand it, which was ar­tic­u­lated by Sec­re­tary of State [Mike] Pom­peo and oth­ers, is that they will not leave un­til Iran leaves Syria.”

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump raised eye­brows through­out the re­gion a few months ago when he said that he wanted to with­draw the US troops from Syria.

Re­gard­ing other is­sues, Ne­tanyahu – asked if the coun­try was on the cusp on few elec­tions – said that he hoped that they would be held close to their sched­uled time, but that the mat­ter was not only in his hands, a ref­er­ence to Agu­dat Yis­rael’s threat to leave the coali­tion over the haredi (ul­tra-Or­tho­dox) en­list­ment law.

At the end of the brief­ing, when no one had asked about the on­go­ing crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions, Ne­tanyahu him­self brought up the is­sue. “Isn’t any­one go­ing to ask about the in­ves­ti­ga­tions?” he asked.

“It is noth­ing,” he said, an­swer­ing his own ques­tion, and al­ter­ing just a bit his stan­dard mantra of “There will be noth­ing , be­cause there is noth­ing.”

“It is noth­ing,” he said. “With a cap­i­tal N.”

The prime min­is­ter re­vealed that he has a busy trav­el­ing month planned for Au­gust that will likely in­clude a meet­ing with the lead­ers of the Balkan coun­tries in Croa­tia, a meet­ing with the lead­ers of the Baltic states in one of their coun­tries, and a likely trip to Colom­bia for the in­au­gu­ra­tion of the new pres­i­dent there – an event ex­pected to be at­tended by many Latin Amer­i­can lead­ers.

In Septem­ber he is ex­pected to at­tend the an­nual Gen­eral As­sem­bly meet­ing in New York, as he does al­most ev­ery year, dur­ing which he would also likely meet with Trump. •

PRIME MIN­IS­TER Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu ad­dresses a state memo­rial cer­e­mony on Mt. Herzl on Thurs­day for the Likud’s ide­o­log­i­cal men­tor, Ze’ev Jabotin­sky.

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