Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and U.S. President Joe Biden

Bennett seeks U.S. 'reset' in first White House visit

In his first-ever meeting with Biden, PM plans to refresh bilateral relations with America's two parties, after Netanyahu alienated Democratic leaders with his criticism of the 2015 nuclear agreement and tight embrace of Trump

AFP |
Published: 08.24.21, 14:36
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett heads to Washington Tuesday for talks with U.S. President Joe Biden, seeking to "reset" relations with Israel's closest ally and reach common ground on arch-foe Iran.
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  • In his first state visit since taking office in June, Bennett will meet Biden on Thursday and attempt to mend ties with America's top Democrat, which were strained under former premier Benjamin Netanyahu, accused of openly favoring the Republican party.
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    Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and U.S. President Joe Biden
    Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and U.S. President Joe Biden
    Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and U.S. President Joe Biden
    (Photos: GPO, AP)
    "Right now the biggest transaction taking place between the two countries is a refresh and a reset of bilateral relations," Scott Lasensky, former president Barack Obama's senior policy advisor on Israel, told AFP.
    Netanyahu alienated Democratic leaders through his relentless public criticism of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers negotiated by the Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice president.
    Netanyahu's tight embrace of Obama's successor - president Donald Trump, whom he repeatedly called "the best friend" Israel ever had in the White House - further rankled Biden's party.
    Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hinted at a new approach when he met his U.S. counterpart Antony Blinken in June.
    "In the past few years mistakes were made. Israel's bipartisan standing was hurt. We will fix those mistakes together," Lapid said.
    While Bennett may aim to warm the diplomatic waters, he remains a foreign policy hawk staunchly opposed to the Iran accord, which lifted sanctions on Tehran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
    Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful but has progressively withdrawn from key commitments, including on uranium enrichment, in response to sanctions imposed by Trump after he unilaterally yanked the U.S. out of the deal in 2018.
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    יאיר לפיד ואנתוני בלינקן במפגש ראשון ברומא
    יאיר לפיד ואנתוני בלינקן במפגש ראשון ברומא
    Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem, June 2021
    ( Photo: AP)
    "I will tell President Biden that it is time to stop the Iranians... not to give them a lifeline in the form of re-entering into an expired nuclear deal," the 49-year-old Israeli premier said Sunday.
    Bennett's meeting with Biden, 78, comes two months after talks in Vienna on reviving the deal broke up without any discernible progress.
    Or Rabinowitz, an expert on nuclear proliferation and U.S.-Israel relations at the Hebrew University, said she thinks "the Iranian issue will top the agenda" at the meeting.
    "Israel wants to set a new jargon", or understanding, with the U.S. over what would constitute Iran crossing a threshold toward building a nuclear weapon, she said.
    Bennett suggested that approach Sunday, saying, "we will present an orderly plan that we have formulated in the past two months to curb the Iranians." He offered no specifics.
    The Israeli leader will land in Washington amid growing concerns about the prospects of reviving the Iran deal.
    Ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi took the oath of office in Iran early this month, after winning a presidential election in June.
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    newly-inaugurated Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi
    newly-inaugurated Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi
    Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi
    (Photo: AFP)
    Bennett leads an ideologically disparate eight-party coalition that ranges from dovish parties to hardliners like himself, and he has avoided the Palestinian question in favor of consensus issues like health and the economy.
    Shira Efron, a senior fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, said Biden's administration had modest ambitions, mainly focused on undoing some of Trump's moves to favor Israel.
    "The Biden administration understands this is a shaky coalition," she said.
    "I don't think Biden is going to push Naftali Bennett to try to restart peace negotiations" between Israel and the Palestinians.
    Political scientist Ali Jarbawi at Birzeit University in the West Bank expected talks between Bennett and Biden would mean "nothing" to Palestinians suffering under Israeli "apartheid".
    Israel firmly rejects accusations that its treatment of the Palestinians amounts to apartheid.
    "Biden is not going to solve the conflict," Jarbawi said.
    "If they talk about Palestinians at all, they will talk about improving the lives of Palestinians under occupation, so it's the same as it used to be."
    Biden's administration has restored millions in funding to Palestinians after Trump ended aid including to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
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    Members of a Palestinian family, some clad in mask due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, stand through the door of their home as they receive food aid provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza
    Members of a Palestinian family, some clad in mask due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, stand through the door of their home as they receive food aid provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza
    Members of a Palestinian family receive food provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza
    (Photo: AP)
    An expected friction point at the talks will be the Biden administration's pledge to reopen a consulate general in Jerusalem responsible for U.S.-Palestinian affairs.
    Trump closed that mission in 2019 after he had moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, bolstering Israel's disputed claim of sovereignty over east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim for the capital of a future state.
    Eugene Kontorovich, who advised the Trump administration on Israel, said re-establishing the consulate would "almost certainly" feature at the talks, and would likely encounter opposition from Bennett, who "is ideologically and fundamentally committed to the integrity of Jerusalem".

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