Netanyahu and Ashton - GPO - May 9, 2012
Meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with EU Foreign Commissioner Catherine Ashton in Jerusalem. Photo by GPO
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After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finished celebrating the aftermath of the political bombshell that he had dropped on Israel by bringing in Kadima into the government, he freed up Wednesday to deal with a different bomb.

On Wednesday afternoon, the prime minister met with European Union Foreign Affairs Chief Catherine Ashton, who arrived in Israel to brief Netanyahu on the preparations for the second round of nuclear talks with Iran, which are set to take place on May 23 in Baghdad.

Ashton's visit was first reported in Haaretz last week. In an unusual move, Netanyahu invited Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to join the meeting with Ashton, along with the newcomer, Kadima head Shaul Mofaz. Mofaz, who will be sworn in Wednesday as a minister in the government, will join Netanyahu's security cabinet, which will now be called the forum of nine senior ministers.

During the meeting, the Israelis presented a rigid set of demands for the Iranians, a senior Israeli official said. Netanyahu and the three ministers told Ashton that Israel's position leading up to the Baghdad talks is that the talks will be considered as progress only if they would yield an Iranian guarantee – with a clear timetable – to halt uranium enrichment, to remove all enriched uranium out of Iranian soil, and to dismantle the underground enrichment facility in Fordo, which is near Qom.

"Iran is trying to gain time through talks with the West, and has no intention of halting its nuclear program," Netanyahu told Ashton at the meeting.

According to a report published by Israeli newspaper Maariv on Wednesday, several officials who took part in the coalitional negotiations between Mofaz and Netanyahu said the two are "coordinated" over the issue of Iran and are "of one mind" when it comes to stopping Iran's nuclear program.

Despite the fact that the report did not explain the significance of that coordination, it was hinted that, ostensibly, Mofaz changed his mind once more and now supports an attack on Iran. In recent weeks, and even more forcefully since he won the elections to become head of Kadima, Mofaz vigorously attacked Netanyahu over the issue of Iran, claiming he was "frightening the public."

What likely stands behind the invitation of Barak, Lieberman and Mofaz to the meeting with Ashton is Netanyahu's desire to present a united front to Ashton, who is charged with handling the negotiations with Iran on behalf of the six major powers - the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.

Ashton's visit to Israel is also slightly unusual. As opposed to all of her previous visits, Ashton's bureau refrained from officially announcing the visit or responding to journalists' questions on the topic. Moreover, she did not visit the Palestinian Authority, but solely met with Netanyahu and his senior ministers and flew back to Brussels.

Ashton's visit to Jerusalem took place while preparations were being made in advance of the second round of talks with Iran. Ashton's senior adviser, Helga Schmid, is expected to meet this week with Iran's deputy negotiator Ali Bagheri, and last week Schmid had met with the negotiating teams of the six world powers.

Netanyahu and his senior ministers made clear to Ashton during the meeting that the world powers must demand that Iran take tangible steps to halt uranium enrichment, and not simply make do with declarations. Lieberman, who visited in Berlin this week, told his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle that Israel expects that the world powers will agree on tangible steps during the meeting with Iran, and not only to hold further meetings that would enable the Iranians to play for time.  

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