British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has clashed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, as he sought to reassure Jerusalem that the nuclear deal struck this week will enhance security in the Middle East, not harm it.
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Standing alongside one another in a news conference, the differences of opinion were openly aired, with verbal blows traded between the two men, in a manner not typically seen in public.
Tension had been heightened after Hammond, who visited Holocaust Memorial Museum Yad Vashem, yesterday poured scorn on the Israeli position, saying that “no agreement with Iran would have been enough for Netanyahu… Israel wants a permanent state of stand-off”.
His comments echoed the thoughts of European counterparts, with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urging Israel to take a closer look at the deal, struck between Iran and six world powers, before criticising it “in a very coarse way”.
Hammond is the first senior representative of the negotiating team to visit Israel. Following him is U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who flies out in a few days’ time, before moving on to Saudi Arabia, whose rulers share Israeli concerns.
Standing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Hammond said: “I know you disagree fundamentally with the way we have approached this issue, but we believe that re-engaging Iran is perhaps the only way forward.”
He contradicted Netanyahu’s claim that sanctions would be lifted “today,” and said: “Despite our very different views, I urge Israel to work with us to ensure the full implementation of the deal.”
He said: “Our commitment to Israel is unshakeable… We will remain a staunch ally,” but added: “As isolated Iran, dominated by hardliners, will not change its behaviour in the region.”
Hammond also noted the “risk and concern that Israel’s standing around the world will fall further” if the situation with the Palestinians continues, although he welcomes the moves Israel had made since last year’s war in Gaza, by providing material and resources.
Returning to the subject of Iran, Netanyahu told Hammond that “Iran still calls for ‘death to Israel’” and asked: “Would it not make sense for the world powers cease and desist for such genocidal calls and actions?… We would have wanted to see a deal that require Iran to change its behaviour first.”
Hammond hit back, saying: “This deal was about Iran’s nuclear activities. We will judge Iran not by the chants on the streets, but by the actions of the government.”
He said the world powers “have not settled every dispute we have with Iran by settling the nuclear issue” but that it was an important first step.
Yet Netanyahu swiftly returned the argument, in what was fast becoming the news conference equivalent of the Punch & Judy show, saying: “While you give them sanctions relief, you’re also giving them hundreds of billions of dollars into their coffers… this is what Arab governments worry about as well.”
Between gritted smiles, the two men finally agreed to “continue the discussion upstairs,” before leaving the podium and the posse of bemused journalists.