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Rivlin and IDF Chief of Staff start diplomatic tour in Europe

What happened: President of Israel Reuven Rivlin, accompanied by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, landed in Europe yesterday to begin their diplomatic tour at the invitation of the presidents of Germany, Austria, and France.

  • During their meetings they will discuss the growing threat of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the development of Iran’s nuclear programme, and concern over the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) decision to open an investigation against Israel.
  • Yesterday Rivlin and Kochavi held a working meeting with President of Germany Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
  • At the press conference, Rivlin said Iran was using “nuclear blackmail to obtain relaxation of the economic sanctions”. He added that Israel attaches great importance to setting out red lines for Iranian conduct that will prevent further development of its nuclear programme.
  • Regarding the ICC, President Rivlin called the chief prosecutor’s decision “scandalous,” adding: “The State of Israel is a strong, Jewish and democratic state which knows how to defend itself and how to investigate itself when required. We are proud of our soldiers, our sons and daughters, grandsons, and granddaughters. They protect us from our enemies, and we will protect them from this decision. The State of Israel will not accept claims against the implementation of her right and duty to protect her citizens.”
  • The president also spoke about the Palestinian issue, saying that attempts to ‘legalise’ the conflict would lead to further polarisation between the sides and the continuation of the crisis. The president said: “We cannot expect that confidence-building measures and improvement in our relations when one side is advocating criminal investigations of the other side’s civilians in a foreign court.”
  • During the meeting, Kochavi gave a security briefing highlighting how Lebanon and Hezbollah are ignoring UN Security Council Resolution 1701, and the implications of precision missiles aimed at Israel.
  • The Chief of Staff also raised concern that the ICC decision represents a significant challenge to democratic states’ ability to engage terrorist forces that hide behind civilian populations.
  • Following the meeting the two presidents issued a joint statement that noted, “The Abraham Accords with the UAE and other Arab nations, opens a window of hope for moderate voices in the region. It is now that extremist forces, led by Iran, are threatening to undermine this stability. The international community must stand together, speaking out strongly and without compromise against Iran’s nuclear plan and its support for terrorist groups that threaten Israel and the stability of the region.”
  • On a separate diplomatic mission, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi travelled to Moscow to meet his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and other high-ranking officials. Among the issues on the agenda will Iran and its entrenchment in Syria.
  • Last night Syria accused Israel of attacking a site in Damascus, thought to be an ammunition warehouses held by militias loyal to Iran.

Context: It is rare for an IDF Chief of Staff to accompany the president on a diplomatic trip abroad. It is also unusual for the President to be leading a diplomatic initiative, which is usually the domain of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

  • Kochavi’s inclusion attests to Israel’s concern on the diplomatic / security agenda, foremost, Iran’s nuclear project and the aim of establishing a united international position to counter their nuclear ambition.
  • Similarly, Israel is looking to their European allies to help quash the ICC investigation. The Chief of Staff told the German President: “I can say with confidence that IDF officers and soldiers do everything and have done everything over the years and in all operations, not to harm innocent civilians. I have seen it with my own eyes many times as a brigade and divisional commander, in the alleyways of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. When there was a suspicion that innocent civilians were harmed, we knew how to investigate our actions thoroughly and, when necessary, those responsible faced the law… the fundamental difference between us and our enemies is that while we do everything we can to prevent harming innocent civilians, our enemies do everything they can to harm our civilians, who are entirely innocent. We are in a new era of warfare, which is highly complex, and the ICC must adapt itself to the new reality. Your soldiers could face the same problems in other parts of the world, and so your support now is very important for us.”
  • Earlier this week Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Mohammad Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s bloc in the Lebanese parliament. Ashkenazi will want to hear Russia’s latest position regarding Hezbollah.
  • There has also been recent media speculation that Russia is helping Israel in searching for the remains of Israeli spy Eli Cohen in Syria.
  •  Foreign Minister Ashkenazi recently spoke on the telephone with his Qatari counterpart about a range of issues, including the possibility of formal relations with Israel. Ashkenazi stepped out of a cabinet meeting a couple of weeks ago for the conversation, which was held several days after the Qatari minister returned from a state visit to Iran.

Looking forward: Today President Rivlin will travel to Vienna to meet with President of Austria Alexander Van der Bellen. He will then participate in a memorial ceremony for victims of the Holocaust at the monument to the memory of Austrian Jews.

  • On Thursday Rivlin will hold a working meeting with President Emmanuel Macron of France at the Palais de l’Elysée before returning to Israel.
  • There are unconfirmed reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu will travel to the UAE tomorrow and meet Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The trip was postponed last week, due to a diplomatic dispute between Israel and Jordan and the use of their airspace.

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