Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke his silence Friday on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying that while what happened in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is horrifying, Iran is a larger problem.
"What happened in the Istanbul consulate was horrendous and it should be duly dealt with. Yet at the same time I say it, it is very important for the stability of the world, for the region and for the world, that Saudi Arabia remain stable," Netanyahu said.
The prime minister was speaking after a meeting with the leaders of Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Greece for the Craiova Forum in the Bulgarian city of Varna.
"I think that a way must be found to achieve both goals. Because the larger problem is Iran and we have to make sure that Iran does not continue the malign activities that it has been doing over the last few weeks in Europe," Netanyahu continued.
"We have helped uncover two terrorist attacks – one in Paris, and the other one in Copenhagen, organized by the Iranian secret service," Netanyahu said. Iran allegedly planned an attack in Denmark in October, targeting the head of the Danish branch of an Iranian organization known as the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz.
"Blocking Iran is uttermost on our agenda for security, not merely for Israel but I believe for Europe and the world as well," Netanyahu said.
An Israeli official made similar statements earlier on Friday when he called Khashoggi’s killing "despicable" but said that co-operating with Riyadh against their common foe Iran was Israel’s priority.
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz’s remarks appeared to break with Israeli government reticence over last month’s killing, which has caused global outrage.
The Saudi government initially denied Khashoggi had been killed then later said he died in an unplanned "rogue operation." Last week, the kingdom’s public prosecutor Saud Al Mojeb said the attack was premeditated.
Asked about Khashoggi on Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM, Steinitz, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, said: "It was a despicable action. It’s worthy of all reproach. This was a civilian, a journalist, not a terrorist."
He went on to say, however, that Israel’s struggle against Iran was more pressing.
"We have a threat that can become an existential threat – the threat of a nuclear Iran, the threat of terror, the threat of spreading through Syria and Lebanon. And Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, are our allies in recent years against the spread of Iran and against the Iranian nuclear threat," he said.
Iran denies it is trying to nuclear weapons.
The Netanyahu government has reported semi-official Israel-Saudi contacts – never confirmed, and sometimes denied, by Riyadh – since 2014.
The summit in Varna was attended by Serbian President Aleksandar Vuči, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Romania’s Prime Minister Viorica Dancila and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.
"This is the first time that a foreign leader not from these four countries has been invited to participate in the summit. This is a great honor for Israel and reflects Israel’s rising status in the world," Netanyahu said.
"Each one has told me that they will improve their consideration of Israel in votes at the EU and UN," he said.
"They want to promote the gas pipeline from Leviathan to Europe and the Balkans. They are very interested in Israeli gas, and Israeli technology, and want friendship with Israel. This is a good sign," Netanyahu concluded.
Additionally, Netanyahu told Dancila that Israel is protecting Europe by preventing dozens of attacks on its soil. He then congratulated her on Romania’s upcoming rotation to hold the position of the presidency of the Council of the European Union, and asked for her help in changing the EU’s position on Israel.
"You are close neighbors, good neighbors. We have another neighborhood. But our relations with our Arab neighbors changing drastically for the better," Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu made a surprise visit last week to Oman, whose foreign minister then told Gulf neighbors that Israel should be accepted in the region. Other Israeli delegates this week visited the United Arab Emirates.
The Trump administration, which has brought U.S. policy sharply in line with Israel’s, has also sought closer relations with Saudi Arabia.
U.S. envoys see Riyadh and other Gulf powers as possible partners in a broad peace deal with Israel that would overtake its long-stalled bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians.