Netanyahu Meets Mattis, Lauds 'Change in U.S. Leadership, Policy' in Mideast

Meeting took place after U.S. defense chief Mattis sat down with Israeli counterpart in Tel Aviv, said Iran continues to threaten Israel with ballistic missiles

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in his offices in Jerusalem April 21, 2017.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in his offices in Jerusalem April 21, 2017. Gil Cohen Magen/Pool/Reuters

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Jerusalem on Friday.

Prior to the meeting Netanyahu said that he sees a "great change" in the direction of U.S. policy in the Middle East, lauding Mattis and President Donald Trump's recent statements on Iran as well as U.S. action against Syria's use of chemical weapons. "It's appreciated around the world and in our region," Netanyahu said, according to a press release. 

"I think this is a welcome change, a strategic change in U.S. leadership and policy," the prime minister said, according to the press release.

Netanyahu also said that Israel and the U.S. both face the "double threat" of "radical Islam," referring to Iran and ISIS.

President Reuven Rivlin also met the American defense chief on Friday at his residence in Jerusalem. According to a press statement by Rivlin's office, in the meeting the president stressed the need for building trust with the Palestinians. "The mistrust between the two peoples make it almost impossible to find a way to bring to an end not only a conflict but a real tragedy," Rivlin told Mattis, according to the statement.

President Reuven Rivlin with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Jerusalem, 21 April, 2017
President’s Spokesperson

"We are living together, we are sharing the same land, we have responsibilities that we have to trust one another in order to understand that we can live together. Sadly, we have wasted 120 years. The rejection by many of our neighbors, the Palestinians, of the very idea of the existence of the State of Israel does not help." 

Lieberman meeting

Earlier, Mattis met with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Tel Aviv to discuss the situation in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Iran.

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. 

Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (L) and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in Tel Aviv, April 21, 2017.
Heidi Levine, Pool/Reuters

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