Biden to meet with new Israeli prime minister amid Afghanistan fallout

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President Biden on Thursday will hold his first face-to-face meeting with Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett.

The visit comes amid the crisis in Afghanistan, where the U.S. is under pressure to ramp up evacuations ahead of Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawal.

The White House meeting with the Israeli leader is, in part, an effort by the Biden administration to show it can handle multiple foreign policy issues at once.

It is the first time Biden will meet in person with Bennett, a relative newcomer to politics. He has only a decade of experience and made his name and fortune as a tech entrepreneur.

The two spoke by phone in June following the conservative right-wing leader’s swearing-in, ousting longtime Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu by pulling together an extraordinary coalition of political parties.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with the Israeli leader on Wednesday, ahead of the president’s meeting. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday that Biden is “looking forward to” his meeting and that the conversation will be wide-ranging and will include topics such as COVID-19 and regional security issues.

Afghanistan will be at the forefront of the agenda, a senior Biden administration official told reporters in a Tuesday call previewing the visit, framing the U.S. military pullout of the country as a strategic decision that allows the administration to focus on other priorities and relationships in the region.

“The end of America’s military involvement in Afghanistan frees up resources and attention and ultimately allows us to better support our partners like Israel,” the official said, adding that the administration’s strategy is on “pursuing a very steady course centered on achievable aims.”

“We’re not trying to transform the Middle East. We’re not trying to overthrow regimes,” the official added.

That approach is likely to align Biden and Bennett on a number of key regional issues, while past Democratic presidents have butted heads with conservative Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu.

The Biden administration so far has worked to maintain the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians — with no calls for new peace talks but instead seeking to resolve crises swiftly, such as the administration’s negotiation of a cease-fire in May to end 11 days of fatal conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“We recognize the reality of resumption of talks, negotiations, is not likely in the near term,” the administration official said. “But there are a number of steps that can be taken to dampen the risks of further sparks of conflict, which is something we’ve seen Prime Minister Bennett and his government very much committed to.”

Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Bennett will likely “face the easiest, smoothest meeting with an American president in recent years.”

“When it comes to Israeli prime ministers and American presidents … you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression,” he said. “Bennett, unlike Netanyahu over the last decade, is not going to play the American political game.”

Netanyahu’s falling-out with Democrats largely relates back to his 2015 speech before Congress in which he opposed the Obama administration’s support of a nuclear deal with Iran.

Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said that while Bennett is politically far right, both sides want to have a “productive relationship.”

“Bennett’s biggest asset in the eyes of the Biden administration is that he is not Bibi Netanyahu, and they are very hopeful about a relationship with someone other than Netanyahu,” Sachs said.

Biden and Bennett are likely to align on thorny issues related to the Palestinians, with the president either keeping or making little to no moves to reverse policies put in place during the Trump administration that were largely supported by the Israeli public, Republicans and the majority of Democrats.

Those include keeping the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and maintaining American recognition of Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights.

While the Biden administration has talked about reopening a U.S. Consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem that was shuttered by former President Trump, the State Department has reportedly delayed the move at the request of Bennett’s government.

Yet Biden and Bennett remain on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to dealing with Iran as the administration pushes for a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Obama-era nuclear deal that Trump exited in 2018.

The Biden team says that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions failed to change Iran’s behavior and that U.S. withdrawal from the deal pushed Tehran to break out of the confines of the agreement, dangerously accelerating its nuclear program.

But indirect talks between the Biden administration and Iran in an effort to bring both countries back to the JCPOA have stalled. The senior administration official said Tuesday that the White House is “committed to a diplomatic path” with Iran.

“We think that’s the best way to put a ceiling on the program and roll back the gains that Iran has made in recent years, but obviously if that doesn’t work there are other avenues to pursue,” the official said.

Bennett, like many Israeli officials, has spoken out against the JCPOA as failing to prevent Iran from ever achieving a nuclear weapon and not addressing Tehran’s other destabilizing behavior, from its ballistic missile program to funding terrorist proxy and attacks in the region.

Bennett is reportedly expected to propose to Biden a new strategy on Iran.

“The timing of the visit is very important because we are at a critical point regarding Iran,” Bennett said on Sunday in a Cabinet meeting.

“Iran is behaving in a bullying and aggressive manner throughout the region. I will tell President Biden that it is time to stop the Iranians, to stop this thing, not to give them a lifeline in the form of reentering into an expired nuclear deal — it is no longer relevant, even by the standards of those who once thought that it was,” Bennett added.

Miller, of the Carnegie Endowment, said that while Bennett has a strategy on Iran he wants to sell to the U.S., Biden “will like to convince Bennett that the best option for the Israelis is not allowing the issue to drift and deteriorate, not military action against Iran.”

Also on the agenda is COVID-19, as Israel, like the U.S., is facing a surge in new cases. Israel started administering third doses of the Pfizer vaccine to older Israelis late last month, and Bennett received his booster on Friday.

Additionally, the meeting will include discussion of security cooperation and partnership with Egypt and Jordan and deepening relations with Middle East countries under the banner of the Abraham Accords — the peace deal negotiated by the Trump administration that established diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan and reestablished ties with Morocco.

For both Biden and Bennett, the visit serves as a public showing of unity and support for the Israeli leader who, despite heading one of the most diverse political coalitions in Israeli history, personally lacks popular support among the public.

“I don’t know how I can stress it more — this is really crucial for him to have a good couple of minutes with Biden on camera,” Tal Schneider, political correspondent for Times of Israel, said during a panel hosted by Israel Policy Forum.

“The hugs shouldn’t be too strong. … This is a Democratic president, and people here in Israel kind of liked Trump. But it’s very important that the relationship be cordial and fruitful and portray a good atmosphere. That’s really important for Bennett.”

The White House is keen to put its support behind Bennett’s coalition.

“As the president often says, we’re demonstrating that democracies can deliver for their people. That’s something we think [Bennett’s] government is truly doing,” the senior official said. “It’s showing that people with divergent backgrounds and views can come together to solve big problems.”

Tags Antony Blinken Benjamin Netanyahu Bibi Netanyahu Donald Trump Jen Psaki Joe Biden Lloyd Austin

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