Jerusalem, June 2, 2018 (AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will travel to Europe Monday to push his uncompromising stance on Iran to leaders eager to salvage the nuclear agreement after the United States withdrew.
Netanyahu, a fierce opponent of the agreement and the Iranian regime, will meet in turn with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Germany, France and the United Kingdom are three of the signatories of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between world powers and Iran, aimed at keeping Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The European leaders have been scrambling to preserve the landmark deal after slamming President Donald Trump's May 8 decision to withdraw.
The fallout from America rejecting the accord is likely to dominate the talks, with Netanyahu expected to firmly oppose European efforts to sustain it. "I will discuss with them ways to block Iran's nuclear aspirations and Iran's expansion in the Middle East," Netanyahu said on Monday of his European meetings, noting the issues were "crucial to Israel's security".
After years lobbying against the 2015 deal, the decision by close ally Trump to ditch the accord has been greeted as a major triumph by Netanyahu.
The Israeli leader has brushed aside European insistence that the agreement is the best option to prevent Tehran getting the bomb, claiming that it in fact brought Tehran closer to becoming a nuclear power.
He also argues that a cash influx into Iran following the lifting of international sanctions as part of the accord has fuelled the expansion of Tehran's military influence in the region, especially in neighbouring Syria. -'No alternative'- But while the US retreat from the deal is a personal victory for Netanyahu, it also represents a leap into the unknown for Israel and the broader Middle East.
While foes Iran and Israel have been kept at bay for decades, an unprecedented May 10 escalation in Syria that saw Israel bomb alleged Iranian targets after blaming Tehran for a rocket barrage, has sparked fears of open war.
"An Iranian departure from southern Syria alone will not suffice," Netanyahu said on Tuesday. "The long-range missiles that Iran is working to station in Syria will endanger us even beyond the range of several kilometres from southern Syria; therefore, Iran needs to leave Syria altogether."
The Europeans have acknowledged concerns over Iran's regional role and its ballistic activities, but sought to maintain the JCPOA while creating a separate arrangement on these issues. Contrary to what the US and Israel say, Europe insists the 2015 agreement works and Iran has abided by it.
"There is no alternative," the EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on Monday. Merkel, May and Macron are still waiting for the Israelis and Americans to present another way to curb Iran's nuclear programme, but are under no illusions it will happen in next week's meetings, according to a European diplomat.
Divided on other issues, the Europeans have emphasised their cohesion on the JCPOA, fearing that ripping it up could benefit hardliners in Iran and push Tehran to resume large-scale uranium enrichment.
If that happens, the fear is it will once again make striking Iran a real option for Israel. On Thursday, a former Mossad chief said that in 2011 Netanyahu had ordered him and the military chief of staff to prepare an attack on Iran within 15 days.
According to Tamir Pardo's interview on the Uvda television programme, such a directive could either mean "he really means it", or be a means to deliver a message, for example to the US, and perhaps drive it to take action.
Other major issues look set to be left on the sidelines in the talks with European leaders.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the spotlight after the worst military flare-up in Gaza since a 2014 war raised fears this week of yet another full-blown conflict in the beleaguered Palestinian enclave.
The exchange of fire came after scores of Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli troops during protests and clashes along the Gaza border.
But along with other subjects, such as bilateral relations or the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, it will likely remain overshadowed by Iran.
Expectations of any progress on the conflict with the Palestinians are low. Peace prospects remain as distant as ever and the diplomatic process in limbo as the sides wait for a plan long promised by the Trump administration.