Germany and France to Netanyahu: Sanctioning Iran's Missile Program Better Than Altering Nuclear Deal

In visit to Israel, French and German foreign ministers stress to Netanyahu that their countries don't seek to change the agreement – despite Trump's threat to withdraw from it

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) meets with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (right) and French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian (left), Israel, March 26, 2018.
קובי גדעון / לע"מ

The foreign ministers of Germany and France visited Israel on Sunday and Monday and discussed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the American ultimatum to pull out of the Iranian nuclear agreement unless it is altered.

The European leaders stressed that their countries don’t seek to change the agreement, even though U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw from it if its “terrible flaws,” as he put it, aren’t “fixed” by May 12.

Still, efforts are being made to reach a compromise in the form of new sanctions on Iran’s missile project. According to sources familiar with the content of the meetings, Germany and France are seeking to understand what Netanyahu’s and Trump’s positions would be on such a compromise.

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The new German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, also raised the Palestinian issue with Netanyahu and said, “Friends can disagree on issues such as the Iran nuclear deal and the two states for two nations, where we have different opinions as well, but we are first and foremost friends.”

Netanyahu, for his part, said Maas’ comments on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism were inspiring, and that Israel deeply appreciated Germany’s contribution to Israel’s security.

Earlier Monday, Maas visited Ramallah and said after his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he had urged the Palestinians “not to tear down bridges,” apparently referring both to the United States and the rift with Hamas.

He added that Germany was still committed to a two-state solution. On Sunday, Maas met with President Reuven Rivlin and on Monday met with opposition leader Isaac Herzog, with whom he also spoke at length on the Iranian threat. Maas said Israel’s concerns were being taken seriously.

Maas is considered friendlier toward the Netanyahu government than his predecessor, Sigmar Gabriel. In his first address after being sworn in two weeks ago, he mentioned three countries that he hoped to visit first – France, Poland and Israel.

The first two are considered obvious in terms of German foreign relations, but Israel has been viewed as an exceptional addition. During his inaugural speech, Maas said, “I entered politics because of Auschwitz” and reiterated Germany’s commitment to Israel’s security.

On Sunday, Maas visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and declared that “Germany bears the responsibility for the most barbarous crime in the history of humanity.” On Monday he was to meet with Holocaust survivors, a meeting facilitated by the group Amcha, which seeks to combat anti-Semitism.

Maas was previously Germany’s justice minister and in that capacity developed a good relationship with his Israeli counterpart Ayelet Shaked, whom he mentioned several times during the visit. During the next few months the traditional meeting between the two countries’ cabinets is expected to take place in Jerusalem.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced during his meeting with Netanyahu that both the prime minister and the president of France would be visiting Israel this year; both Netanyahu and Rivlin are expected to visit France, probably in June. Le Drian said the two countries had a lot in common: “Our fights are the same: terror, anti-Semitism and the security of the Middle East.”

Netanyahu expressed his condolences for the terror attack in France on Friday, saying, “We grieve with you over the loss of innocent French lives and of a true hero, the officer Arnaud Beltrame, a hero of humanity, not only a hero of France, and we understand this very well.”

He also linked the incident to Iran and said the world must ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons.

France is considered a leader of those opposed to changing the Iranian nuclear agreement. In recent months, in an effort to save the deal, France, Germany and Britain have been advancing a compromise under which the EU would impose harsh sanctions against Tehran’s ballistic-missile program. Le Drian, who is pushing the compromise, called last week for the EU to impose the sanctions given the “questionable” role Iran was playing in the Middle East, particularly in Syria.

“We are totally determined to make sure that the Vienna deal is respected. And we must act with strength to achieve that,” he told reporters last week. “But at the same time, we can’t exclude the Iranian responsibility in the missile proliferation and the very questionable role of Iran in the whole Middle East region.”

The proposal would require the support of all members of the EU, an especially complex process. During his meeting with Rivlin on Monday, Le Drian said that Iran’s domination in the region and the question of Syrian stability are the most complex issues the world must address, but that a compromise must be reached to assure peace and security.