Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, mistrustful of warming ties between world powers and Iran, flies to Rome today to discuss Iranian nuclear talks and Middle East peace efforts with Secretary of State John Kerry.
While Netanyahu had planned to meet Pope Francis, he had to scrap the visit after the Vatican said busy schedules wouldn’t permit it this time. Kerry’s travels through Europe still allow the Israeli leader to express his opposition to easing sanctions against Iran and doubts about resolving Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.
“He will remain the skeptical observer on the Obama administration’s warming to Iran while seeking to relieve some of the pressure Kerry is exerting to make concessions to the Palestinians,” said Benedetta Berti, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
In Moscow yesterday, Russia’s chief negotiator at the talks said Iran and world powers may strike an accord allowing the Islamic republic to continue enriching uranium up to 5 percent purity. That level would require more time to turn into weapons-grade material than the 20 percent enriched uranium Iran is also producing. A Netanyahu spokesman, Mark Regev, said the Israeli leader would comment on that in Rome.
Kerry, shuttling this week to Paris, London and Rome, met yesterday with Arab foreign ministers also concerned about U.S. positions on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Tomorrow, he will try to reassure Netanyahu that no decisions on easing Iran sanctions have been made and that any such action would depend on Iran first taking verifiable steps to show it won’t produce nuclear weapons, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because Kerry hasn’t said publicly what he will tell the Israel leader.
Iran denies it is working to build nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu has urged the U.S. and five other powers taking part in talks with Iran in Geneva to reject any proposal that would not ensure a halt to all uranium enrichment. Iran must also stop building a plutonium-producing reactor and curtail other capabilities to make sure it can’t build a nuclear weapon, the Israeli leader says.
Beyond advocating for sanctions, Netanyahu has said Israel may take military action to stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s gestures to the West drew scorn from Netanyahu, who warned in an address to the United Nations this month that Iran is determined to continue uranium enrichment.
“The pressure has to be maintained on Iran, even increased on Iran, until it actually stops the nuclear program, that is, dismantles it,” Netanyahu said in an Oct. 20 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “There are a lot of countries that are waiting for a signal, just waiting for a signal to get rid of their sanctions regime.”
The Israeli leader is scheduled to meet this evening with Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta. While Pope Francis would like to meet Netanyahu, his schedule did not permit it, said Ciro Benedettini, a spokesman for the Vatican.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with the pope last week. Both Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres have invited Francis to tour the Holy Land, a pilgrimage his predecessor Pope Benedict made in 2009.
Following remarks from Israeli and Palestinian officials suggesting peace process has stumbled, Abbas said the talks shepherded by U.S. envoy Martin Indyk remain on track. The Palestinian leader received a pen from the pope and said he hopes to use it to sign a peace agreement with Israel.
“We will go forward in sincere and good faith with our minds open and a strong will to succeed,” Abbas said Oct. 18 in Berlin, adding an agreement is possible within the nine months alloted by Kerry in late July.
In Paris yesterday, the secretary of state said the talks were intensifying, with 13 rounds held so far.
Reflecting on the Kerry-sponsored talks in a speech at Bar-Ilan University Oct. 6, Netanyahu again called on the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a step they’ve shunned because Arabs comprise about 20 percent of Israel’s population and doing so could compromise demands to repatriate Palestinian refugees.
“As long as you refuse to do so, there will never be peace,” the prime minister said.
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