Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s criticism of the world powers’ interim agreement with Iran went from warning the accord would lead to an unraveling of the sanctions regime, to stating in Rome on Monday that this is already happening.
“There appears to be general relaxation of sanctions, and a rush to accommodate Iran, and to make it legitimate as if Iran has changed anything of its actual policies,” Netanyahu said after meeting Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
Netanyahu continued speaking out against the agreement even as he faced criticism of this tactic from home and as US Secretary of State John Kerry, a champion of the deal, was set to arrive on Wednesday for a two-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
If the sanctions regime against Iran collapses, Netanyahu said, that would signal the end of chances to peacefully stop Iran’s nuclear program. And the program, he stressed, will be stopped.
Netanyahu flew home Monday evening after two days in Rome, which included a meeting with Pope Francis and an annual government- to-government meeting, along with five other Israeli ministers, with their Italian counterparts.
While Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert ripped into Netanyahu Sunday for his vocal criticism of the Iran deal, and Netanyahu responded by saying he will not remain quiet in the face of significant security dangers, Finance Minister Yair Lapid said Monday on the CNBC US cable news network that Israel has “earned the right” to be listened to on the Iranian issue.
“When people wonder why we have been so loud against this agreement with Iran it is because for us it is not academic or theoretical, it is existential,” he said. “Here is a regime that has been loud, not about a dispute with Israel, but rather about its wish and commitment to the destruction of Israel.”
Lapid added that in his view the most important strategic asset Israel has is its intimate relationship with the US throughout the years.
“This is an asset that we don’t want to lose,” he said.
“We are going to be out loud, maybe blunt about out concerns, but we understand that the US means well and is doing its best under very complicated circumstances, and we think we have earned the right to be listened to.”
Asked how much damage has been caused to US-Israel relations as a result of the very public difference over Iran, Lapid said it was “OK to have disputes within the family, as long as we keep it in the family. I think we are still within the frame of the family.”
Iran was one of the topics discussed when Netanyahu met for some 25 minutes in the Vatican earlier Monday with Pope Francis, whom he formally invited to Israel.
It was the first time the two leaders met face to face, and in addition to Iran they discussed the Syrian civil war, the welfare of Christians in Israel as well as the pope’s expected visit to Israel. If Francis does make such a trip, he will be the third pope to visit the country since the Vatican established diplomatic ties 20 years ago, following a visit from John Paul II in 2000 and Benedict XVI in 2009. Pope Paul VI briefly visited Jerusalem in 1964.
Several news sources reported the visit would take place May 25-26, but Vatican officials said the trip has not been officially confirmed.
According to political experts in Italy, Netanyahu’s trip was important for all sides: for Netanyahu as he tries to rally support for his position against Iran, for Italy as it seeks to play its traditional role as a bridge builder in the Middle East, and the Vatican as it looks to reassert its role as a global player after several years in which that role was reduced.
“During John Paul II’s declining years, and throughout Benedict XVI’s papacy, the Vatican was more quiet,” said James Walston, a political scientist with the American University of Rome. “Francis is starting to show he’s willing to be a lot feistier.”
Retired church historian Fr. Alistair Sear said “the Vatican has traditionally played an important behind-the-scenes role in international politics, but that hasn’t been the case in recent years.”
This was Netanyahu’s first meeting with Francis and he brought him two gifts: a hanukkia and a Spanish translation of his father Benzion Netanyahu’s seminal work on the Spanish Inquisition, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth- Century Spain. Netanyahu wrote a short inscription inside the book: “To his Holiness Pope Franciscus, a great shepherd of our common heritage