JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraced U.S. President Donald Trump’s more aggressive American foreign policies and recent willingness to use military strikes against Syria, praising the new administration during visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
While showering the usual praise on U.S.-Israeli shared security commitments to fight terrorism and state-sponsored threats, Mattis and Netanyahu’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, focused their complaints on one culprit: Iran. Netanyahu said U.S. strikes on Syria, whom he called “Iran’s proxy,” were “appreciated around the world” and in this region.
“I think this is a welcome change, a strategic change, of American leadership and policy,” Netanyahu said, meeting Mattis Friday at the prime minister’s office. “Welcome to Jerusalem.”
Mattis is the first high-ranking Trump administration official to visit Israel and his long-planned trip comes after the high-profile and first direct American military strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. That war, both defense leaders argued, continues because of Iran’s support.
“I think it’s important that we remind ourselves that if good people don’t band together, then bad people can do a lot of damage in this world,” Mattis said. “And we’re committed to stopping that and doing whatever it takes to pass on peace and freedom to the next generation.”
At an earlier appearance at the Israeli defense ministry in Tel Aviv, Lieberman said there is an “axis of evil” — resurrecting a phase often used by American officials during President George W. Bush’s administration — “from North Korea to Tehran, to Damascus to Hezbollah in Beirut … there is no doubt the main link in this chain is Iran.” Mattis, in prepared remarks, highlighted that Iran threatens Israel and the region with ballistic missiles, maritime and cyber threats, and through proxies like Hezbollah, is helping to keep Assad in power in Syria.
Mattis confirmed Syria possesses additional chemical weapons, and he repeated that Assad would be “ill-advised” to use the munitions again.
Mattis also confirmed Syria has spread its remaining aircraft across the country following the U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile strike against Shayrat Air Base earlier this month. Both defense leaders declined to give more detail publicly about where the fighters are located or how much more they know.
“They have dispersed their aircraft, no doubt. They have dispersed their aircraft in recent days,” Mattis said.
From Israel, Mattis traveled to Doha, Qatar, late Friday, where he is scheduled to continue his regional tour of U.S. military commands in the region, and later to visit Djibouti, in Africa.