Netanyahu to Merkel: Iran's Goal Is to Wage Religious War in the Middle East – It Must Leave Syria

Netanyahu blames Gaza border protests on 'humanitarian crisis created by Hamas,' says Israel examining options to prevent humanitarian collapse

Merkel and Netanyahu hold a news conference in Berlin, Germany, June 4, 2018.
\ AXEL SCHMIDT/ REUTERS

BERLIN – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Monday that Iran's goal is to wage a religious war in Syria and said the Islamic Republic is trying to establish itself at Israel's "back door" in order to attack it. 

Speaking during a joint press conference after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Netanyahu said Iran wants to deploy its Shi'ite militias to convert Muslims from the Sunni branch of Islam. According to Netanyahu, Iran's military presence in Syria includes 18,000 Shi'ite fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

>> Iran's proxy wars: The four battlegrounds Iran uses to threaten Israel and the Middle East ■ Analysis: In Syria, Putin and Netanyahu were on the same side all along

"This will inflame a religious war, and the consequences will be many more refugees and you know exactly where they'll come," Netanyahu warned, adding: "Iran must leave Syria. All of Syria." In 2015, Germany and other European powers saw an influx of more than a million migrants, many of whom refugees from the civil war in Syria.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Angela Merkel meet in Berlin, June 4, 2018.
Haim Tzach/GPO

Regarding the nuclear deal signed with world powers, Netanyahu said the easing of sanctions on Tehran under the accord has helped finance its activities abroad. "We have to break their money machine," Netanyahu said. "Iran calls for our destruction but it's also seeking nuclear weapons to carry out its genocidal designs." 

Merkel said she agrees that Iran's activities in the region and its ballistic missile program are a concern – particularly regarding Israel's security – but that she and Netanyahu differ on how to deal with Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions.  

"We are united in the goal that Iran should never get a nuclear arsenal," Merkel said, adding that the nuclear agreement, which the U.S. has withdrawn from, offers ways to thwart the threats posed by Iran. "We support Israel's right to security and have said this to Iran at all times," she said. "We have the same goal that Iran must never get a nuclear weapon and the difference between us is how to do that."

At the press briefing, Netanyahu also revealed that he will meet with America's new and controversial ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, in Berlin.

Regarding his meeting with the American ambassador in Berlin, Netanyahu said, “The meeting was at their initiative. We thought it would be a courtesy meeting at the airport. He’s a big fan of Israel’s. But now, because we’re running late ... it will be nothing more than a handshake. It was set before the storm here.”

Before flying to Paris, Netanyahu touched upon the situation on the Israel-Gaza border and blamed the weekly mass protests along the fence on the humanitarian crisis in the Strip.

"Waves of Gazan protesters are crashing on the fence because of the humanitarian crisis created by Hamas. We are examining options for preventing a humanitarian collapse in Gaza," Netanyahu told Israeli reporters during a briefing on the plane from Berlin to Paris. 

Netanyahu then returned to the topic of Iran. “I said that with or without an agreement, we vehemently oppose any action by Iran that advances it toward nuclear weapons, and that if there’s any such attempt, we are obligated to deny Iran atomic weapons,” he reiterated.

Asked whether his demand for a complete Iranian withdrawal from Syria represented a toughening of his negotiating position, Netanyahu replied, “This isn’t a negotiating tactic. We really think they need to quit all of Syria. I set a goal of opposing the nuclear agreement [with Iran], in opposition to the entire world, and I’ve been very faithful to it.  Here, too, we need to set this goal. It’s right and correct."

'Iran and Iran'

Netanyahu landed in Europe on Monday, where he will meet with leaders on the future of the Iranian nuclear agreement.

"I'll raise two issues: Iran and Iran," Netanyahu told reporters before his trip. "First: The need to maintain pressure against the nuclear deal, we need to intensify that pressure. It may not have a consensus right now, but over time I think such an understanding will be formed," adding that the second issue would be the prevention of Iranian attempts to establish a presence in Syria. "On this matter I hope to form a joint policy," he said.

Netanyahu said Israel will also be commemorating 70 years of friendship with France in many fields: "In culture, trade, tourism and innovation, of course, for which we will hold a special event with President Macron," 

After meeting Merkel in Berlin, Netanyahu flew to Paris, where he will meet with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace Tuesday. Netanyahu will help launch the joint Israeli-French cultural season and meet with Jewish community leaders and French executives at an event promoting trade relations. On Wednesday he will meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Minister Boris Johnson. Netanyahu is also expected to meet with British MPs.

Macron and May are expected to bring up the escalation in the Gaza Strip and demand proportionality in Israel’s responses. In recent weeks, the three countries have expressed great concern over the extent of the killings in the Gaza Strip, even as they condemned the rocket fire from Gaza. They are also expected to discuss the demolitions and expulsions in Area C of the West Bank, which is under total Israeli control. European countries, especially Germany, have invested money and diplomatic efforts in bringing humanitarian aid to Area C and they will protest Israel’s actions there.

Since the United States withdrew from the nuclear agreement, Netanyahu has spoken on the phone with all three European leaders in an attempt to persuade them to support American pressure on Iran and Israel’s struggle against the flow of Iranian forces toward its northern border.

Israel and the United States hope the U.S. withdrawal from the deal will lead to changes in the agreement’s expiration clause and in Iran’s long-range missile program. On the other hand, the three leaders, along with China and Russia, are in favor of remaining in the agreement and discussing its future with Iran, given the threats of U.S. economic sanctions and the tough terms set by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the Iranian regime to begin talks on a new agreement.

Israeli diplomatic sources have repeatedly denied reports of supposed understandings regarding the removal of Iranian forces from southern Syria. These sources say that in Netanyahu’s talks with Pompeo and with Putin, he has stressed that Iran must leave Syria completely, not just move away from the border, as Russian officials, among others, have claimed. According to these sources, the prime minister has been stressing in his conversations that, “Israel will continue to maintain full freedom of action in the country in accordance with its security needs.”