Tester visits Israel as Iran nuclear agreement announced

Lee State Bureau

by Mike Dennison

HELENA – On the day the Obama administration revealed an interim nuclear agreement with Iran, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester was in Israel, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and Tester says Netanyahu was not happy.

“He was upset; he didn’t like the agreement,” Tester said in a telephone interview Tuesday from Tel Aviv. “He felt that under this (agreement), Iran would continue to be able to enrich uranium. …

“There is just a total lack of trust with Iran in Israel.”

Tester said Netanyahu left their one-on-one meeting Sunday evening in Jerusalem to take a call from President Barack Obama.

Tester, D-Mont., had scheduled his weeklong visit to Israel some time ago, arranged and sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a pro-Israel group that routinely takes members of Congress on fact-finding trips to Israel.

He flew into Jerusalem last Friday and was scheduled to leave Tel Aviv late Tuesday night on the first of three flights taking him to Great Falls by Wednesday afternoon.

Little did Tester know he’d be in Israel during a huge breaking news story on Middle East policy.

The Obama administration on Sunday unveiled the six-month interim agreement with Iran, the United States and five other world powers for Iran to limit activity that could create a nuclear weapon in exchange for easing of economic sanctions against the Islamic republic.

Tester said he didn’t have much chance to talk to a lot of Israelis, but got the impression that a strong majority of Israel opposes the initial agreement because they fear it doesn’t do enough to restrain a country that has sponsored terrorism against Israel.

Nonetheless, Tester said he thinks the agreement is a chance to change the political landscape in the Middle East for the better.

“If Iran does what they say they’re going to do and really gets rid of their (uranium) enrichment and shuts down that heavy-water plant, I think this could be a real winner,” he said. “If, on the other hand, they don’t, I think there will be a better opportunity to have worldwide pressure on these guys.

“I’d rather have the former than the latter … but we need to hold their feet to the fire.”

Tester also said he disagrees with suggestions that the agreement and other moves by the Obama administration signal a pulling back from U.S. engagement in the Middle East.

“I see exactly the opposite,” he said. “I see an increase in influence, with the goal of trying to create stability and make sure that Israel is secure. It’s the only democracy that’s working around here.”

Tester spent most of the past five days in Israel, visiting all corners of the country, including religious sites, farming cooperatives, Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank area and border areas near Lebanon, Egypt and Syria.

He also met with Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator from the Palestinian Authority, a retired Israeli general who worked in counterterrorism and Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Tester said he found that most Israelis and Palestinians want an agreement on a Palestinian state, but a lack of trust between the two sides leads most to believe it won’t happen.

He also met with an Israeli business expert who said the country has a good climate for startup businesses. Positive business factors in Israel include access to capital, a good education system and something that the United States doesn’t have, Tester said: Required military service, which fosters a sense of discipline, service and sacrifice among Israeli citizens.