Meeting in Lisbon, Netanyahu and Pompeo See Mideast Protests as Chance to Weaken Iran

The PM and state secretary discussed 'developments in the region,' but the meeting did not yield any concrete steps

Mike Pompeo greeted by Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben-Gurion Airport, Israel, October 17, 2019.
David Azagury / U.S. Embassy Jerusalem

LISBON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that the wave of popular protests in the Middle East is an opportunity to "increase pressure" on Iran.

"There is no reason" to help the protesters, Netanyahu said ahead of a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as the demonstrations were part of a "fertile ground" to weaken the Islamic Republic.

Pompeo echoed Netanyahu's statements alongside the prime minister at the press conference ahead of their meeting in Lisbon, Portugal. Pompeo said he discussed Middle East stability with Trump over many meetings at the NATO summit in London at a time when there are "Anti-Iran protests taking place" in Baghdad, Beirut and Iran itself.  

"These are people who are seeking freedom," he said, and "they recognize the threat that is posed the kleptocrats that are running the Islamic Republic of Iran. We talked with our European partners on how we can together ensure we do everything we can to create opportunities for those people who simply want freedom and a chance to live a normal life," Pompeo said.

The meeting, which lasted 90 minutes, ended with no resolutions, or concrete steps forward. A laconic state department statement only confirming the meeting had taken place, saying the pair had discussed "Iran's destabilizing influence, ... the importance of economic cooperation with regional partners, and Israel's security." 

Protests have erupted in Iraq and Lebanon, which are within Iran's sphere of influence, and Iran itself, where at least 161 have been killed in a government crackdown on the demonstrations. 

During the press conference, Netanyahu added that he maintains regular contact with U.S. President Donald Trump, and recommended to him to take decisive action and pressure Iran. "There is intelligence and operational coordination with us and he decided to implement it, including sanctions and leaving the nuclear deal," Netanyahu said.   

Iran is stretching its economic resources while trying to "broaden its empire," the prime minister added. "It's creating political problems and control issues," leading to "fertile ground for weakening Iran."

Netanyahu was speaking as he was about to land in Lisbon ahead of his meeting on Thursday with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after an initial plan to meet Pompeo in London during the NATO summit had been called off.

Israel is "actively engaged in countering" Iran's aggression emanating from Iran itself, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Gaza and Yemen, the embattled prime minister said.

According to Netanyahu's office, the two will discuss "Iran and the region's developments." In his statement to the press, Netanyahu said both Pompeo and Trump agreed with him on using anti-government demostrations in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran as leverage against Tehran.

Netanyahu's Thursday meeting with Pompeo comes after his phone call with Trump on Sunday, when they also discussed the annexation of the Jordan Valley, which Netanyahu told voters in September he would achieve.

While in Portugal, Netanyahu is also scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Antonio Costa and Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva.

Before taking off from Tel Aviv, Netanyahu told reporters his meeting with Pompeo would be focused on “Iran, first of all,” a mutual defense treaty and a “future” American recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley.

Asked by reporters about comments made earlier on Wednesday by Likud lawmaker Miki Zohar, who told Kan Bet public radio there would be “no more negotiations” on a unity government with Kahol Lavan, Netanyahu said he “expressed deep frustration felt by many in Likud and in the general public over the fact that after the generous proposals we gave Kahol Lavan, they wouldn’t move even a nanometer… They simply refuse [a unity government], which clashes with very important national interests, because of the individual interests of one person, Yair Lapid.”

Likud has argued Kahol Lavan co-leader Lapid is behind the party’s objection to sit in a government with Netanyahu.

If unity talks fail, “we’ll go to election, and we’ll win it,” Netanyahu added.

Netanyahu also said the Trump administration’s pressure campaign against Iran is working, citing ongoing protests in the country, adding that “it’s important to increase the pressure against Iranian aggression.”

The visit comes at a sensitive political time in Israel, as lawmakers have a week left to nominate a candidate for prime minister before a new election is triggered, which would be the third within a year.

In coalition talks with Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan party, which now appear to be at an impasse, Netanyahu – facing indictment in three corruption cases – has insisted on serving first in the case of a rotation unity government. His argument is that he wants to "exhaust processes" which he started with the Trump administration, most notably regarding annexation. 

Netanyahu planned a visit to the NATO summit that started Tuesday in London, but officials involved in the planning of Netanyahu’s visit told Haaretz it was canceled over “logistical problems,” adding that the Israeli team gave organizers only a short notice.

That was the second time in recent months that Netanyahu plans snap visits to the United Kingdom to meet with American officials, requiring preparations by British security agencies, also facing a rising threat of terrorism.

In September he did so to meet with Defense Secretary Mark Esper. At the same time, he tried to squeeze in a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was himself in the midst of a political crisis and only managed to give him half an hour of his time.