Washington, United States: Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met Friday with President Joe Biden a day after a deadly bomb attack on the US Afghanistan evacuation mission forced a postponement and cast a shadow on an Israeli charm offensive.
Bennett said he was bringing “a new spirit of cooperation” from Jerusalem after he took office in June, ending 12 years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership that was defined by polarization and sometimes hostility toward Democrats.
However, a bombing in Kabul that killed at least 85 people including 13 US troops cast a pall over their meeting, initially scheduled for Thursday.
Bennett said he offered condolences in a phone call Thursday, saying Israel “stands at your side in this difficult hour as the USA has stood by Israel throughout the years.”
By Friday the meeting was back on track. A senior Israeli official said Biden moved the meeting that began in the Oval Office to the private presidential dining room, “where he is hosting the prime minister for coffee.”
A broader meeting was expected to follow including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Israeli National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata, and Israeli Ambassador to Israel Gilad Erdan, along with Bennett’s senior aide Shimrit Meir.
Bennett, 49, is on his first official visit since taking office in June as head of an eclectic coalition in which his hawkish party holds only a handful of seats.
“I bring from Israel a new spirit, a spirit of folks who sometimes harbor different opinions but work together in cooperation,” he told Blinken during a meeting Wednesday.
“This is the same spirit that I want to bring to our relationship of cooperation, of goodwill, of friendship.”
His positions on key issues remain at odds with the White House.
Bennett has said he will continue settlement construction and is against a Palestinian state in territories Israel captured in 1967.
He also opposes the US reopening a consulate in Jerusalem to handle Palestinian affairs, which Trump shut in 2019 after moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Blinken hinted at their differences in a summary of their Tuesday meeting. His office wrote that “the secretary also emphasized that Israelis and Palestinians alike deserve equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and dignity.”
Iran’s ‘alarming nuclear steps’
In remarks to the press ahead of his visit, Bennett said he planned to make Iran a focus of his visit.
Israel fiercely opposes Biden’s attempt to reverse Trump’s withdrawal from a 2015 nuclear deal that lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
Since Trump’s move, Iran has itself withdrawn from key commitments, including on uranium enrichment.
Meeting with Bennett Wednesday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin did not address the Iran deal but said he shared concerns about “Iran’s alarming nuclear steps and continued regional aggression.” He committed to “ensuring that Israel can defend itself against threats from Iran, its proxies, and terrorist groups.”
Shibley Telhami, a professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, estimated that the attack in Kabul would not impact Biden’s posture on Iran.
“On the one hand he doesn’t want to rock the boat with pro-Israel constituency; on the other hand, the Afghan blasts will confirm his determination to seek a diplomatic deal with Iran,” Telhami told AFP.
Initially, a senior Israeli official said Biden had intended to say Israel was concerned about a potential withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Syria because of possible future instability.
By Friday morning the official said Bennett was expected to speak about a vision of “doing good and power.”
“In the Middle East it’s not enough to be good,” the official said Bennett planned to say. “We will not outsource Israeli security.”
Dan Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel, told AFP Bennett’s visit would set a new tone even during disagreements.
“The Netanyahu years, especially with Democratic presidents, were marked by a lot of rancor from the Israeli side and disrespect frankly for the presidency,” he said.