President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will hold their first face-to-face meeting on Thursday, each arguing their case on key issues in the Middle East and seeking to restore relations between the two countries.
The two leaders hold differing views on the Iran nuclear deal and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both of which are expected to be key topics of discussion during their Oval Office session.
Bennett and Biden will also try to build their own relationship after the US president strained relations with Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.
In their conversation, Bennett is expected to push Biden on his quest to revive the Iran nuclear deal.
Prior to his trip, Bennett said he would tell Biden “it is now time to stop the Iranians, stop this thing” and not again “enter into a nuclear deal that has already ended and is irrelevant even to those who thought it was ever relevant.’
President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will hold their first face-to-face meeting on Thursday
But Biden has expressed support for the revival of the historic 2015 deal brokered by the Obama administration but scuttled in 2018 by Donald Trump.
However, US indirect talks with Tehran have stalled and Washington continues to enforce sanctions against Iran.
Meanwhile, the White House has said it plans to bring up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict whenever the two leaders met.
Bennett has said he will not allow a Palestinian state while in office. The Biden administration has expressed its support for a two-state solution that by definition includes an independent Palestinian state.
Still, the White House has postponed the reopening of the US consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem, a move seen as a show of support for Bennett.
Bennett and Biden never met – a rarity for the US president who is known to almost everyone thanks to his more than 40 years in politics. But they spoke to each other on the phone. Biden called Bennett two months ago shortly after he was sworn in as prime minister, replacing Netanyahu in office.
Bennett’s visit comes as Biden faces the upcoming August 31 deadline to remove US troops from Afghanistan as the government works to evacuate the remaining Americans and their allies from that country.
The visit will give Biden the opportunity to demonstrate business as usual with a key partner as he confronts the complex situation in Afghanistan. Biden’s biggest foreign policy crisis since taking office has not only damaged his approval ratings domestically, but also raised questions about his credibility with friends and foes alike.
The Israeli prime minister met separately on Wednesday with Foreign Minister Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to discuss Iran and other issues. The visit is his first to the US as prime minister.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) meets Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Willard Hotel on Wednesday
President Joe Biden had tense relations with Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu – above, the two men can be seen together in 2016 when Biden was vice president
Iran remains one of the more thorny issues on the table ahead of the Oval Office meeting.
Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal led Tehran over time to give up any restrictions the accord placed on its nuclear enrichment. The country is now enriching a small amount of uranium to 63%, a short step away from weapons grade levels, compared to 3.67% under the deal. It also runs much more sophisticated centrifuges, and more than allowed under the accord, alarming experts on nuclear non-proliferation, though Tehran insists its program is peaceful.
The Biden-Bennett sit-down comes weeks after Ebrahim Raisi was sworn in as Iran’s new president.
Raisi, 60, a conservative cleric with close ties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has suggested he will work with the US. militias – something the Biden administration wants to address in a new deal.
Government officials acknowledged that Iran’s potential “breakout” — the time it takes to amass enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon — has now been reduced to a matter of months or less.
Biden will tell Bennett he shares Israel’s concerns that Iran has expanded its nuclear program but remains committed to diplomacy with Tehran for now, a senior government official said.
The official briefed reporters ahead of the meeting, saying, “Since the last government abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, Iran’s nuclear program has just come out of the box dramatically.”
The official said if the diplomatic path with Iran fails, “there are other avenues to follow,” but went no further.
Bennett also wants to turn the page of his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. Bennett wants to move away from Netanyahu’s combative public style and instead address disagreements constructively behind closed doors between Washington and his closest ally in the Middle East.
Netanyahu had a close relationship with Trump after his frequent clashes with Barack Obama. Biden, who has met every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir, has had his own tensions with Netanyahu over the years.
During his latest White House campaign, Biden called Netanyahu “counterproductive” and a “far-right” leader.
Biden waited nearly a month after his election before calling Netanyahu for the first time, raising concerns in Jerusalem and with some Netanyahu supporters in Washington that the two would have a difficult relationship. The president called Bennett hours after he was sworn in as prime minister in June to congratulate him.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, chairman of liberal Jewish advocacy group J Street, said Bennett plans to build a positive working relationship with the Biden administration.
But Ben-Ami, whose group supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, noted that the two leaders are out of sync on several issues besides Iran. Bennett opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and supports the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, which Biden opposes.
Bennett, 49, the son of American immigrants to Israel, has been an outspoken advocate for settlement building.