image Photo: Flash90, Reuters

Netanyahu to Blinken: US should not return to JCPOA

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today hosted United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem, and issued public statements following a lengthy morning meeting.

After welcoming Blinken on his first visit to the Israeli capital as the top US diplomat, Netanyahu gave “a vote of thanks to President Biden and to you for firmly supporting Israel’s right of self-defense” in the recent Operation Guardian of the Walls offensive against Gaza rocket fire.

“I have to say that Secretary Blinken, in a previous capacity in 2014, when we had another round of engagement against Hamas aggression, supported us by having Iron Dome replenishments, a quarter of a billion dollars, that you personally shepherded through the system very quickly, and we remember it and we’re very grateful to you,” said the Israeli leader, adding, “You are giving meaning to this now again with replenishments of Iron Dome interceptors that save civilian lives on both sides. We’re grateful for that too.”

Underscoring that “We, too, will give meaning to our commitment to our self-defense if Hamas breaks the calm and attacks Israel,” Prime Minister Netanyahu warned, “Our response will be very powerful.”

He revealed that his talks with Blinken included “ways of how to work together to prevent Hamas rearmament with the weapons and means of aggression,” but that none of the discussions on other regional issues “is greater than Iran.”

“I can tell you that I hope that the United States will not go back to the old JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action atomic deal), because we believe that deal paves the way for Iran to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons with international legitimacy,” stressed the Israeli leader.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has long vowed to obliterate Israel. Netanyahu has long accused Tehran of violating curbs imposed by the 2015 JCPOA accord in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, a goal Israel has vowed to obstruct by any means necessary.

“Whatever happens, Israel will always reserve the right to defend itself against a regime committed to our destruction, committed to getting the weapons of mass destruction for that end,” emphasized Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Turning his attention to other regional matters, Netanyahu vowed to work with the US “to expand normalization between Israel and the Arab and the Muslim world and deepen the peace treaties that we already have.”

As far as the Palestinians, Netanyahu said his discussions with Blinken on how to improve quality of life and humanitarian conditions in Gaza included the return of 2 Israeli civilians and the remains of two IDF soldiers being held captive by Hamas, “as well as building economic growth for Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, with international cooperation and participation.”

As far as resuming formal peace talks with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said: “I think President Biden was absolutely correct when he said you’re not going to get peace until Israel is recognized as an independent Jewish State, and that is the key” and that “I couldn’t agree more with President Biden.”

He also thanked the Biden administration for taking a strong stand against anti-Semitism that surged worldwide during Operation Guardian of the Walls. “Thank you and the president for your strong statements against antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism, but it’s antisemitism. You took a bold position, a clear position, and we appreciate it. I think all decent people everywhere appreciate that stance,” he said.

For his part, Secretary Blinken pledged that Washington would rally support to rebuild Gaza as part of efforts to bolster the ceasefire between its Hamas Islamist rulers and Israel.

He made clear that the US would do its utmost to ensure that Hamas, which it regards as a terrorist organization, did not benefit from the humanitarian aid.

“We know that to prevent a return to violence, we have to use the space created to address a larger set of underlying issues and challenges,” Blinken said.

Blinken will remain on his regional tour through Thursday, will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah later today, followed by talks in Egypt and Jordan.

Negotiations between Israel and the Authority collapsed in 2014. While Biden has previously expressed his belief that a Two-State solution is the only answer to resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, US officials have indicated that it is too early to launch wider peace talks.

Israel is in political turmoil after four inconclusive elections in two years, and the Palestinians are divided by deep enmity between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah factions.

Blinken said he and Netanyahu discussed “other steps” that need to be taken by leaders on both sides to set “a better course” for Israelis and Palestinians.

“As President Biden said, we believe that Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely, to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity and democracy, to be treated with dignity,” Blinken said.

With regard to Iran, with which the US is currently engaged in indirect talks aimed at returning both nations to the JCPOA, Blinken said earlier that it in unclear Tehran would resume compliance with curbs on its nuclear development in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

In 2018, former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions on Iran’s oil, banking and shipping sectors, in moves supported by Israel. Iran then openly breached nuclear curbs of the deal.

Iran, I think, knows what it needs to do to come back into compliance on the nuclear side, and what we haven’t yet seen is whether Iran is ready and willing to make a decision to do what it has to do. That’s the test and we don’t yet have an answer,” Blinken told ABC News’ “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” program on Sunday.

The 5th round of talks to revive the deal are set to resume in Vienna this week.

Democratic President Joe Biden, who succeeded the Republican Trump in January, has said he believes Iran is seriously engaging in talks – but that it remains unclear what steps it would actually take to return to the deal, which was forged when Biden served as Vice President under former President Barack Obama.

Blinken told CNN that if both sides can first return to the original deal, “then we can use that as a foundation both to look at how to make the deal itself potentially longer and stronger – and also engage on these other issues, whether it’s Iran’s support for terrorism … its destabilizing support for different proxies throughout the Middle East.”

The US Secretary of State later stressed to ABC, however, that, “The first thing that we need to do is put the nuclear problem back in the box.”

In related developments, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi confirmed that he reached an agreement with Iran to extend a temporary agreement to allow for continued monitoring of some activities within the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities.

The current temporary agreement does not grant the United Nations nuclear watchdog organization access to the nuclear installations, but only technical tools to collect data from the facilities. IAEA inspectors will remain blocked from accessing that data unless the JCPOA is revived at the Vienna Talks, although Grossi stressed that in the interim the data will not be erased.

He also stated that he was not concerned that the outcome of the 18 June Iranian presidential elections would impact the temporary agreement, saying “I am confident that whoever comes next will of course continue cooperating with the IAEA. I think it is in everybody’s interest.”

The 40 candidates running for the Iranian presidency mandated approval by the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the ultimate decision-maker to whom the winner exclusively serves in an advisory capacity.