Mattis Meets Lieberman in Tel Aviv, Says Iran Continues to Threaten Israel With Ballistic Missiles

U.S., Israeli defense chiefs confirm Syria's Assad used chemical weapons, reaffirm importance of defense cooperation

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Tel Aviv, April 21, 2017.
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Tel Aviv, April 21, 2017. Ofer Vaknin

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis met with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Tel Aviv on Friday to discuss the situation in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Iran.

UPDATE: Netanyahu meets Mattis, lauds 'change in U.S. leadership, policy' in Mideast

Mattis was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem later in the day. 

In a press conference, Mattis said that Iran continues to threaten Israel and its neighbors with ballistic missiles.

Mattis said that while the nuclear agreement with Iran is being enforced, the Islamic Republic maintains operations in the Middle East, including cooperation with Hezbollah to support Syrian President Bashar Assad. 

Lieberman said Israel is glad to see new approaches taken by the U.S administration with regard to the nuclear deal, and added that Jerusalem has patience to see practical steps on the matter.

Lieberman asserted that "the axis of evil between North Korea, Tehran, Damascus and Beirut" is the primary problem for Israel and for the entire world. He accused Iran of trying to destabilize the Middle East.

Both defense chiefs confirmed at the press conference that Syria's Assad used chemical weapons.

Mattis said that Assad has clearly retained chemical weapons in violation of an agreement to get rid of its entire stockpile. 

"There can be no doubt in the international community's mind that Syria has retained chemical weapons in violation of its agreement and its statement that it had removed them all. There is no longer any doubt," he told reporters. 

Lieberman expressed support for the U.S. strike on a Syrian airbase in response to the chemical attack earlier this month, saying it "sent a strong message to the regime." He declined to comment on reports that Israel believes Syria still holds between one ton and three tons of chemical weapons.

Lieberman said that Israel and the U.S. share the same values, and that with U.S. support Israel can "overcome the threats and bring peace and stability to the region."

Mattis said he expects defense cooperation between the U.S. and Israel to continue.

Provocative statements

During the press conference, Mattis also said that while North Korea's made provocative statements recently, these kinds of remarks have proven to be hollow in the past and should not be trusted. 

"As far as North Korea's latest words (are concerned), I think we've all come to hear their words repeatedly, their word has not proven honest," Mattis said.

On Thursday the official newspaper of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party, Rodong Sinmun, threatened the United States with a "super-mighty preemptive strike" that it said would wipe out "not only the U.S. imperialists' invasion forces in South Korea and its surrounding areas but the U.S. mainland and reduce them to ashes." 

The Tel Aviv press conference was held after a formal reception at the IDF headquarters, and a meeting between Mattis and Lieberman at the latter's office. IDF chief Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, Maj.-Gen. Herzl Levi were present at the meeting as well.

With reporting from Reuters