Trump’s Middle East policy is ‘welcome change,’ Netanyahu tells U.S. defense secretary

(JTA) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent actions in the Middle East are “a welcome change,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told visiting U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis.

The two met Friday in Jerusalem; Mattis is making his first official visit to Israel in his new post.

The “forthright words on the part of President Trump and very forthright deeds against the use of chemical weapons by Iran’s proxy, Syria,” Netanyahu said, have “been appreciated around the world and in our region. I think this is a welcome change, a strategic change of American leadership and American policy.”

On April 7, a U.S. Navy vessel launched 59 missiles into Syria, where they hit an airport controlled by Syrian President Bashar Assad, in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by forces loyal to Assad. Former U.S. president Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons was a “red line,” but did not order a strike on Syria following alleged uses of chemical weapons after he issued the statement.

Netanyahu also noted that Mattis had “very clear and forthright words” about Iran.

“We sense a great change in the direction of American policy,” the Israeli leader said.

In February, Mattis called Iran “the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.”

Netanyahu and Obama clashed publicly over the deal that Obama spearheaded as president between six world powers and Iran, which offered the Islamic republic relief from sanctions in exchange for a partial scaling back of its nuclear program. Netanyahu said the deal “paved Iran’s path” to obtaining nuclear weapons, whereas Obama said it was the best way to block that path.

The Iranians “appear to be living up to their part of the agreement,” Mattis said during a meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman. The nuclear deal “continues to be in force,” he said.

However, Mattis also warned “that in no way mitigates against or excuses the other Iranian activities in the region, including the war in Yemen that grinds on and what they’re doing in Syria” to keep Assad in power. “But the agreement on nuclear issues still stands and that’s all I can say about it.”

Echoing past statements by Netanyahu, Mattis in his statement published by the Prime Minister’s Office mentioned the Iranian threat on Israel in the context of the Jewish state’s vigilance following the Holocaust.

“The two dangers that face Israel and all of the other nations in the region that are trying to maintain a stable and peaceful and prosperous region are those that I’m here to discuss with the prime minister, especially the week before Holocaust remembrance,” he said in reference to Israel’s official memorial day for the genocide, which this year falls on April 23.

Mattis’ statement was issued Friday by Netanyahu’s office along with the prime minister’s. The quote attributed to Mattis did not name the two threats he was referencing.

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