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Netanyahu, Merkel play down differences over Iran

Jefferson Chase (Berlin)
June 4, 2018

The Israeli and German leaders may have stressed commonalities, but on Iran's nuclear potential they're miles apart. Benjamin Netanyahu even warned that Iran's activities could unleash a new wave of refugees to Europe.

Benjamin Netanyahu & Angela Merkel in Berlin
Image: Reuters/A. Schmidt

Iran was clearly at the top of the agenda as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Monday.

The two close allies are on diametrically opposite sides of this particular issue. Germany favors a continuation of the Iran nuclear deal despite the departure of the United States from the agreement. Israel opposes the deal, worried it will increase Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons. It wants to see Germany cease doing business with Tehran. 

Netanyahu claims Iran finances conflict with the proceeds made on the back of eased sanctions. The Israeli prime minister is on tour trying to persuade European countries to follow US President Donald Trump's move of tearing up the deal.

Read more:Iran nuclear deal: Has Europe done enough to save it? 

Postponing the problem?

Fielding questions from reporters, Merkel said that Germany and Israel shared the goal of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but disagreed on the means to that end.

Merkel said that before the UN-sponsored deal Iran had been close to developing such weapons and that the deal would guarantee "more transparency."

Netanyahu countered that the deal would give Iran permission to develop "unlimited" amounts of enriched uranium in the future in return for not enriching uranium now. He said that was unacceptable. 

But he insisted that there was "no problem at all" in communications between Germany and Iran.

Iranian businesses under threat from Trump

Merkel conceded that that Berlin and Tel Aviv didn't see eye to eye on the topic, but insisted that there was consensus about ending Iran's "worrisome" involvement in the Syrian civil war.

"There's not agreement on every issue, but we're friends and there's a will to understand the other's position," Merkel said.

Netanyahu praised Germany's commitment to Israel's security and to fighting anti-Semitism. But he was keen to stress that "radical Islam" was the greatest danger faced by the world today, and said that Iran continued to call for Israel's destruction.

He also claimed that Tehran intended to start a "religious war" within the Islamic world, which he warned would lead to further masses of refugees who would try to flee to Europe — a pointed reference to the issue that is widely regarded as Merkel's Achilles heel.

Gaza strip protests Reuters/A. Cohen)
The two leaders also discussed Israel's occupation of Palestinian territoriesImage: Reuters/A. Cohen

The Palestinian questions

An Israeli journalist also asked Merkel why Germany did not recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital as the United States has.

Merkel said that Germany supported a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, and that international treaties prevented Jerusalem from being acknowledged as the Israeli capital.

A German journalist asked Netanyahu when Israel would cease occupying Palestinian territories in the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu said that Israel was willing to negotiate a peace settlement, but added that the Gaza Strip was ruled by Hamas and others who called for Israel's destruction.

"If you're interested in peace, Israel cannot afford to have additional Palestinian territories used against us," Netanyahu said. "The reason there is no peace is that the Palestinians refused to recognize the Jewish state."

Breach of protocol

Despite being pressed on a range of global concerns of some magnitude, it was a question about Richard Grenell that appeared to cause Netanyahu the most discomfort. The new US ambassador to Berlin stirred controversy in Germany over the weekend with an interview he gave to the ultra-conservative Breitbart News site. Grenell said he saw his task as "empowering" Europe's rising right-wing.

The Israeli prime minister attempted to play down a planned meeting with Grenell when quizzed about the encounter by a reporter. Meeting representatives of a third-party country on official visits would constitute an embarassing breach of diplomatic protocol.

"I am going to meet him briefly at the airport. I wouldn't draw any meaning into that that just doesn't exist," Netanyahu said.

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