WASHINGTON (JTA) — In his first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, President Joe Biden said that although he prefers diplomatic means to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, he is not afraid to “turn to other options” on the issue.
The pledge captured what both men, who are in varying degrees of political precariousness right now, hoped to extract from the meeting: A bigger focus on what they agree on than what they disagree on, and the start of a new era in relations between Israel and U.S. Democrats.
“We’re going to put diplomacy first and see where that takes us,” Biden told the press alongside Bennett during a break in their meeting on Friday. “But if diplomacy fails,” he added, his voice raising in volume, “we’re ready to turn to other options.”
For Biden, it was a welcome momentary distraction from the chaos unfolding in Afghanistan. The meeting, originally planned for Thursday, was delayed after bombings at the Kabul airport killed 13 U.S. troops.
Back home, Bennett is presiding over a fractious political coalition with a single vote majority, struggling to control a new COVID-19 surge that has dented his popularity and dealing with the fallout of an embarrassing phone call, in which he confused the name of a fallen soldier.
But for a few hours on Friday, the two leaders were able to pivot to Iran and other issues of import to Israel — a significant gesture on Biden’s part, given his preoccupations with the Afghanistan situation. Pro-Israel officials briefed on the meeting said that it went well for a first visit; there was chemistry between the two men, and it went longer than planned.
Bennett opposes Biden’s efforts to reenter the Iran nuclear deal — the diplomacy Biden referred to — but unlike his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, he is realistic about the prospects of dissuading Biden from trying. So extracting a robust promise from Biden to consider “other options,” including possible military ones, will allow Bennett to claim he influenced the president.
“The Iranians are spinning their centrifuges in Natanz and Fordow,” Bennett said, referring to two uranium enrichment facilities. “We [have to] stop it, we both agree. So we’ve developed a comprehensive strategy that we’re going to be talking about with two goals. The first goal is to stop Iran on its regional aggression and start rolling it back into the box. And the second is to permanently keep Iran, away from ever being able to break out the nuclear weapon.”
Beyond Iran, Biden also emphasized the defense assistance the United States delivers to Israel, and reiterated a pledge to fully restore Israel’s Iron Dome capability, after the short range anti-missile defense system was depleted by Hamas rocket fire during the latest Gaza conflict, in May.
“We’re also going to express the unwavering commitment we have in the United States to Israel’s security, and I fully, fully, fully support Israel’s Iron Dome system,” Biden said.
Bennett thanked Biden for the support, and returned to the prevalent theme of his visit: reestablishing amicable ties between Israel and both parties in the United States, after years of tensions between Netanyahu and Democrats.
“You are going to write yet another chapter in the beautiful story of the friendship between our two nations, the United States of America, and the Jewish and democratic state of Israel,” Bennett told Biden.
Biden made clear that there was still lingering bafflement — if not anger — among Democrats at the hostility Netanyahu evinced toward Biden’s old boss, former President Barack Obama, who launched the most generous defense assistance package to Israel in history, $3.8 billion a year.
“You give me credit, much of which should go to Barack Obama,” Biden said.
“Please thank him as well,” Bennett said.
Only Biden mentioned a peace deal with the Palestinians, and in passing — his aides have said that they recognize that substantive moves toward peace are not in the cards right now, particularly given the unwieldy political coalition Bennett leads at home. They talked more about each country’s respective battle to combat the resurgent coronavirus.
Afghanistan, and more specifically the Taliban, have historically not posed issues for Israel. Bennett began the talk by expressing condolences for the dead in Afghanistan, but he also used the moment to get back to his main concern.
“These days illustrate what the world would like if Iran or a radical Islamic regime acquired a nuclear weapon,” he said. PJC