WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in back-to-back meetings on Wednesday, during which the premier was assured that the Biden administration would supply Israel with the means necessary to defend itself against Iran.
Bennett is in Washington for the first time since becoming prime minister, holding a series of meetings with top Biden administration officials and the US president — with the Iranian nuclear threat the most pressing issue on his agenda.
“The Department of Defense is also committed to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, and to ensur[ing] that Israel can defend itself against threats from Iran, its proxies, and terrorist groups,” Austin told reporters before entering his meeting with Bennett at the Pentagon, noting Iran’s “alarming nuclear steps and continuing regional aggression.”
“Iran must be held accountable for acts of aggression in the Middle East and on international waters,” Austin said. The defense secretary pointed the finger squarely at Tehran for the July 30 attack on the Israeli-linked Mercer Street tanker in the Gulf of Oman in which two people were killed.
The defense secretary added that the “US is committed to strengthening its strategic relationship with Israel. The administration is committed to Israel’s security and its right to self-defense.”
“That is unwavering. It is steadfast,” said Austin, noting the current 10-year memorandum of understanding worth $3.8 billion in defense aid annually that was signed during the Obama administration.
Austin added that the US is also committed to the replenishment of Iron Dome interceptor missiles after the missile defense system was used in overdrive during the Gaza war in May where Hamas fired thousands of rockets at Israel.
“We are working closely with Congress to provide all the necessary information to respond positively to your request to provide 1 billion dollars in emergency funding. And it’s going to save more innocent lives,” Austin said.
For his part, Bennett thanked the defense secretary for the Biden administration’s support for Israel and stressed his interest in further deepening ties.
Bennett’s meeting with Austin was held behind closed doors, and both sides’ readouts offered limited details on what was discussed.
“The prime minister and the defense secretary discussed a number of regional, political and security issues, chief among them ways the curbing of Iran’s regional aggression and the progress of the Iranian nuclear program,” Bennett’s office said in a statement.
In remarks ahead of his subsequent closed-door meeting with Blinken at the Willard Hotel in Washington, Bennett said he looked forward to discussing Iran’s pursuit of regional dominance, and its race to a nuclear weapon.
“I bring from Israel a new spirit,” Bennett said, returning to a theme he introduced before boarding a plane for Washington on Tuesday. “A spirit of folks who sometimes harbor different opinions, but can work together in cooperation and goodwill, in a spirit of unity, and we work hard to find common things we do agree upon and move forward on, and it seems to be working.”
Bennett’s government opposes US efforts to return to the Iran nuclear agreement signed in 2015 by the Obama administration and vacated three years later by former US president Donald Trump.
Bennett was scheduled to finish the day by sitting down with White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. On Thursday morning, Bennett will meet US President Joe Biden for the first time at the White House before returning back to Israel later in the day.
The prime minister told the secretary of state that he also looked forward to discussing the issue of climate change, adding that Israel “has a unique role to play” through its high-tech sector.
Blinken told Bennett ahead of their meeting that Biden looks forward to hosting the Israeli premier at the White House.
“We look forward to addressing all these challenges we face, particularly regional security,” he said, singling out Iran.
“On a positive note,” Blinken said the two sides would discuss the new diplomatic relations Israel has been developing with various countries in the region, He said the US looks forward to helping Israel build on those relationships.
Notably, Blinken brought up the importance of working on Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, which Bennett did not mention in his opening remarks.
“The Secretary also emphasized that Israelis and Palestinians alike deserve equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and dignity, which is important in its own right and as a means to advance prospects for a two-state solution,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said after the meeting.
Price also said the two agreed on the importance of working toward Israel’s inclusion in the US Visa Waiver Program.
Before reporters were ushered out of the room, Bennett could be heard assuring Blinken that Israel has no more elections on the horizon after four in less than two years.
“I don’t want to intrude in your politics,” Blinken responded, smiling.
“Please do, maybe you’ll help!” Bennett replied with a chuckle.
Then after the camera lights went dark, the Israeli premier could be heard commenting on the US-led evacuation of Afghanistan amid the Taliban’s takeover comparing the effort to Dunkirk.
“On that level alone, it’s one of the most extraordinary logistical operations,” Blinken responded.