POLITICS
12/07/2014 06:12 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2014

Benjamin Netanyahu Plays Nice On Iran, Arabs In Washington Speech

WASHINGTON -- Wondering who to thank for international progress on reining in Iran's nuclear program? It's Israel, hardly Iran's best friend, that is playing the key role in negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday.

Netanyahu, who has had difficult relations with the Obama administration and been critical of its approach to Iran, gave a surprisingly U.S.-friendly address that emphasized his support for an agreement with Iran that would not be "a bad deal" and his respect for Arabs willing to work with Israel and the West.

"Our voice and our concerns played a critical role in preventing a bad deal," Netanyahu said, assigning credit to Israel even as he noted that it is not among the group of six countries -- the U.S., China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany -- directly negotiating with the Iranian government. The question of who will get kudos for a potential Iran deal is important for the U.S., as a successful agreement would be a marquee foreign policy achievement for President Barack Obama.

Netanyahu's message was not all good news for the Obama administration: The prime minister urged that pressure on Iran be increased, in a likely reference to efforts in Congress to boost U.S. sanctions on that country in the months ahead. Supporters of nuclear diplomacy -- most notably the White House -- believe such a step could torpedo the delicate negotiation process.

Negotiators from Iran and the six world powers recently failed to reach a deal by a self-imposed deadline of Nov. 24. They have extended the talks -- and a temporary agreement between the international community and Iran that opened the door to negotiations -- to June 30, 2015, although Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that a deal could be reached by February or March.

At issue are the questions of how much nuclear fuel enrichment capacity Iran would be allowed to retain and how quickly the international community would lift its sanctions, which have sought to undermine Iran's economy. Under the temporary agreement, itself a historic step given that Iran has been largely isolated from the international community since its Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has curbed some enrichment and offered greater transparency on its facilities in exchange for limited sanctions relief.

Netanyahu has been critical of the negotiation process each step of the way. He worries that a deal would leave Iran with strong enough nuclear capabilities that it could pose a greater threat to Israel than ever before -- with tacit global approval. He slammed the temporary agreement in 2013. Before this year's November deadline, he reminded the world that even as negotiations continued, the international community and the American people had to remember that "Iran is not your friend." And following the extension of the talks, he said, "No deal is better than a bad deal."

The prime minister said Sunday that he continues to seek a tougher stance on Iran and to blame the Palestinians for difficulties in the peace process between them and his country. However, he is supportive of other Muslim actors in the region because they are willing to tackle extremists such as those aligned with the Islamic State, the militant group also known as ISIS.

"The entire region is hemorrhaging," Netanyahu said. "ISIS savagery is merely one example of it ... Israel and our moderate Arab neighbors have much to gain by cooperating. This cooperation could in turn open the door to peace [with the Palestinians]."

Arab nations were quick to join the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, with five Arab monarchies assisting in the first strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria.

Yet Netanyahu failed to mention that Iran is one of the most involved Muslim opponents of the Islamic State: The Huffington Post reported Monday that U.S. officials have been aware of Iran bombing the group in Iraq and Kerry described such activity as "positive" on Wednesday -- though the administration has emphasized that it is not cooperating with Iran.

Israel's own role in the Islamic State fight is complicated. It is not publicly targeting the group in either Iraq or Syria, likely because it would be controversial for it to become involved there. But the United Nations said recently that Israel has provided support to moderate Syrian rebels opposed to both the Islamic State and Syrian president Bashar Assad, and just hours before Netanyahu spoke, the Syrian government reported that Israeli jets had struck targets near its capital of Damascus.

Israeli and U.S. officials declined to comment on the reports to The Huffington Post.

Israel is understood to have previously carried out strikes within Syria to prevent the transfer of weapons to the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah.

Netanyahu made his comments in a recorded message to the Saban Forum, a high-profile annual gathering of U.S. and Israeli policymakers and power players. He had originally intended to address the audience live but canceled because of "events in Jerusalem."

The forum, co-hosted by Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban and the Brookings Institution, seeks to foster conversations about U.S.-Israeli relations. This year's iteration of the gathering has been marketed as especially important given recent difficulties between the two nations over the Iran talks and the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians.

The latest flashpoint in the Israel-Palestine peace process involves a piece of legislation that emphasizes Israel's Jewish character and is seen as discriminatory toward the thousands of Arabs who live in that country. Netanyahu, who supports the bill and has stuck to that position despite a political crisis, referred to the bill Sunday, vowing to "never pass legislation that will undermine Israel's democratic nature."

Donté Stallworth contributed reporting.

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