PARIS – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters after his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday that Israel opposes the cease-fire agreement in southern Syria that the United States and Russia reached because it perpetuates the Iranian presence in the country.
The prime minister noted that in his meeting with Macron, he made it clear to the French president that Israel was totally opposed to the cease-fire plan.
A senior Israeli official who asked not to be named due to the diplomatic sensitivity of the matter said Israel is aware of Iranian intensions to substantially expand its presence in Syria. Iran is not only interested in sending advisers to Syria, the official said, but also in dispatching extensive military forces including the establishment of an airbase for Iranian aircraft and a naval base.
“This already changes the picture in the region from what it has been up to now,” the senior official said.
Netanyahu discussed the cease-fire deal with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by phone Sunday night.
By openly voicing his opposition to one of the most significant moves the United States and Russia have made in Syria in recent months, Netanyahu made public a major disagreement between Israel and the two great powers that had until now been kept under wraps and expressed only through quiet diplomatic channels.
U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed on the cease-fire on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg last week. In a tweet published shortly after the truce came into effect last week, Trump tweeted: “We negotiated a ceasefire in parts of Syria which will save lives. Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!”
The U.S.-Russian deal included establishing de-escalation zones, otherwise known as safe zones, along Syria’s borders with both Jordan and Israel. Over the past month, Israel had held talks on this agreement with senior American officials, including Brett McGurk, America’s special envoy for the battle against ISIS, and Michael Ratney, the special envoy for Syria, both of whom visited Israel several times.
During these talks, Israel presented a list of demands and voiced several reservations about the emerging agreement. Inter alia, Israel said that the de-escalation zones must keep Iran, Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias away from the Israeli and Jordanian borders and must not enable Iran to consolidate its presence in Syria. Israel also told the Americans it objected to having Russian troops policing the cease-fire in the safe zones near its border.
In the days before the United States and Russia announced the cease-fire deal for southern Syria, Netanyahu spoke by telephone with both Tillerson and Russian President Vladimir Putin to reiterate Israel’s positions on the agreement. At the start of the cabinet meeting on July 9, Netanyahu said that both Putin and Tillerson had told him they understand Israel’s position and will take its requirements into account.
But senior Israeli officials told Haaretz that when Jerusalem obtained the text of the deal, it discovered that in defiance of its expectations, the Americans and Russians had ignored Israel’s positions almost completely.
“The agreement as it is now is very bad” one senior Israeli official said. “It doesn’t take almost any of Israel’s security interests and it creates a disturbing reality in southern Syria. The agreement doesn’t include a single explicit word about Iran, Hezbollah or the Shi’ite militias in Syria.”
Another subject that was discussed by Netanyahu and Macron was Hezbollah’s activity in southern Lebanon, that violates UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War. France is one of the main countries that make up the United Nations Interim Force in southern Lebanon and has played a central role in formulating Resolution 1701 in August 2006.
During their meeting, Netanyahu asked the French president to use his influence with the government in Beirut with regard to Hezbollah’s activity in Lebanon, especially in the south of the country. He also asked Macron to convey a message from Israel to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri about plans by several senior Hamas officials to move their operations to Lebanon.
“France has a special relationship with the Lebanese government, and Macron has the ability to talk directly with the Hariri government about Hezbollah,” Netanyahu said at a briefing for reporters after his meeting with the French president. “In our meeting, I sent clear, forceful messages about Hezbollah’s continued consolidation in the country with sophisticated arms, some of which they want to manufacture on Lebanese soil and some of which they want to import from Syria. I told him the seeds are being sown here for a very serious conflict between Israel and Lebanon, and the Lebanese government shouldn’t take steps that would push such a conflict forward.”
Macron said after his meeting with Netanyahu that France is ready to lead a diplomatic move to address the threat posed by Hezbollah’s weapons in south Lebanon.
Netanyahu and Macron met at the Élysée Palace for an hour and a half, when part of the meeting took place in private. The two leaders reached the Élysée Palace straight from a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews of Paris. During the ceremony, Macron said that anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism, and must be fought.
“I share Israel’s concerns about Hezbollah’s activity in south Lebanon and about the arms the group has,” Macron said during joint statements with Netanyahu following their meeting. “I want to try and promote a diplomatic move to reduce the severity of this threat,” he added.
Macron said that the two leaders also discussed the joint struggle against terror and the nuclear agreement with Iran. The French president stressed that France will remain vigilant in monitoring the full implementation of Iran’s nuclear deal, adding that Israel and France will hold talks to discuss policy coordination on the day after the nuclear agreement.
Macron condemned the attack on the Temple Mount and called for the resumption of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in order to reach a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines and Jerusalem as the capital of both states.
Netanyahu responded by saying that Israel and France share a desire to promote stability and peace in the Middle East, adding that he made it clear the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, on any border. Netanyahu also said that he discussed with Macron the regional opportunity created by the partnership of interests and warming of relations between Israel and the Arab countries.