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Israel to push Iran concerns during Holocaust memorial

Guillaume LAVALLÉE
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to lobby key leaders at this week's 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on the threat posed by the Jewish state's arch-foe Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to lobby key leaders at this week's 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on the threat posed by the Jewish state's arch-foe Iran (AFP Photo/جيل كوهين-ماجين)

Jerusalem (AFP) - Israel will lobby key leaders at this week's 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on what it considers one of the gravest modern threats to the Jewish people: Iran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron of France and top US officials before Thursday's event at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre in Jerusalem, where dozens of dignitaries are expected.

Speaking earlier this week, Netanyahu drew a direct link between the Nazi effort to exterminate Europe's Jews and what he described as the existential threat Israel faces from Iran.

"A third of the Jewish people went up in flames (in Nazi death camps). There was nothing we could do," he said in a YouTube video.

"After the Holocaust, the state of Israel was established, and the attempts to destroy the Jewish people have not disappeared... Iran openly declares every day that it wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth," he added.

"I think the lesson of Auschwitz is, one, stop bad things when they're small, and Iran is a very bad thing, it's not that small, but it could get a lot bigger with nuclear weapons."

Israel fiercely opposed a 2015 deal between Iran and world powers that offered Tehran sanctions relief in return for curbs to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu applauded when US President Donald Trump in 2018 pulled out of the accord and has pushed European powers to follow Washington's lead.

Analysts agree that Netanyahu has little hope of convincing European powers, let alone Russia, of joining the US-led "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran.

But the Israeli leader might make marginal headway by urging Putin to curb Iranian influence in Syria and lobbying Macron to push back against Iran in Lebanon, experts said.

- Influence in Syria -

Pro-Iranian militia in Syria have stepped up their efforts to launch attacks against Israel, which has responded with air strikes -- including on Damascus.

But Russia has been Syria's most important military ally since its forces intervened in the latter's civil war from 2015.

After the killing of top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani earlier this month in a US drone strike outside Baghdad airport, Putin made a surprise visit to Damascus, his first since Syria's conflict began.

The visit may have been "an effort to expand the Russian position at the expense of Iran", Itamar Rabinovitch, a Syria expert and emeritus professor at Tel Aviv University, told AFP.

Israel may want to see Russia diminish Iran's role in Syria, but it is not clear what the Jewish state could offer Moscow as an incentive.

"I am not sure Israel has anything in particular to give the Russians except some very limited intelligence on mutual challenges," said Menahem Merhavy, a lecturer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"There is nothing new Netanyahu can tell Putin that could make him reconsider his position regarding Iranian influence in Syria," he added.

- Hezbollah, Lebanon -

Iran also has considerable sway in Israel's northern neighbour Lebanon through its backing of the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah.

Last year, the Israeli army accused Hezbollah of building -- with Iranian support -- a facility where rockets could be converted into precision guided missiles.

The Israeli army has warned that, once operational, such missiles would be more difficult to repel than standard rockets and could inflict substantial damage on the country's soil.

France, which as a colonial power held a mandate in Lebanon, still has influence in Beirut.

Netanyahu raised "Hezbollah's project to manufacture precision missiles" during his closed door meeting with Macron, a statement from the prime minister's office said.

Speaking alongside Israeli President Reuven Rivlin later on, Macron pledged "vigilance" against "any form of terrorist activity that could be carried out from Lebanon that would threaten Israel's security," without giving details.

An Israeli security source who requested anonymity suggested to AFP that if Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was persuaded that the guided missile project was "too risky... he will stop it".