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Israel said to be worried US forces may leave Iraq and Syria

Biden calls Bennett after Kabul attack pushes their meeting to Friday morning

PM offers condolences over attack; new summit scheduled for 10:25 a.m. Washington time, Bennett’s office says, with stay extended to Saturday night

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Willard Hotel in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. (Olivier Douliery/Pool via AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Willard Hotel in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. (Olivier Douliery/Pool via AP)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke by phone with US President Joe Biden Thursday evening, offering his support following a deadly attack on US troops and Afghans outside Kabul’s airport earlier in the day.

Biden initiated the call, contacting Bennett on his personal cellphone rather than via the White House switchboard, Israel’s Channel 12 reported. The president thanked the prime minister for his understanding over their delayed meeting in the wake of the Kabul blasts, and they had a “warm” conversation, the report said.

The attack, in which at least 13 US service members and dozens of Afghans were killed by Islamic State-affiliated terrorists, threw a wrench in a planned meeting between Bennett and Biden that had been scheduled for late Thursday morning, delaying it and forcing the Israeli leader to extend his trip.

A spokesperson for Bennett said a new meeting had been scheduled for 10:25 a.m. on Friday, Washington time (5:25 p.m. in Israel). The spokesperson said the meeting would take the same format as had been planned for the day before, a one-on-one summit followed by an expanded working meeting with staff. The two will also make remarks to the press.

The White House later confirmed the new times for the meetings.

The delay means Bennett, who had been planning to leave Washington late Thursday, will instead have to spend the weekend in the US capital, leaving on Saturday night at the earliest. Bennett is an Orthodox Jew and is religiously prohibited from traveling between sunset Friday and sunset Saturday. Secular Israeli leaders have also historically avoided traveling publicly on Shabbat.

During the call, Biden thanked Bennett for understanding the circumstances and for his willingness to extend his trip, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

There was no official readout of the call from the White House.

Bennett’s advisers had earlier assured White House staffers that they completely understood the delay in the planned summit, saying the Israeli delegation would make itself available as necessary, according to Hebrew media reports.

Israeli reporters leave the White House as the meeting between US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is delayed, August 26, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Bennett’s office said that during the call the premier offered Biden his condolences and support “just as America has stood by Israel for years.”

Bennett is in Washington on his first official overseas trip as prime minister. Aides said he plans to use his meeting to renew strained ties between the previous Israeli administration and Democrats and to push the US on tightening opposition to Iran in light of its nuclear program.

For Biden, whose administration had been buffeted by criticism over the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan even before the attack, the meeting was expected to be a welcome respite with a close US ally keen on rehabilitating ties.

A warm meeting and photo-op with Biden is also important for Bennett — who leads an ideologically diverse coalition, and whose Yamina party only secured seven seats in the March 2021 elections — as he crafts his image as a national leader. He has said he wants to advance “a new spirit” of cooperation with the US administration.

During their meeting, Bennett had intended to tell Biden that Israel was concerned about a potential withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Syria because of possible future instability, a senior Israeli official said. Israeli officials have reportedly expressed private concerns regarding the US pullout, but have declined to speak out publicly to avoid tensions with the administration.

The request gained added weight against the deadly Kabul bombings amid the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

However, Bennett’s staff said he did not plan to give his opinions on the events there.

“We didn’t come here to comment, we came to encourage,” another source in his delegation said. “I think the Americans appreciate that a lot.”

President Joe Biden speaks about the bombings at the Kabul airport that killed at least 12 U.S. service members, from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Bennett had originally been intending to rush back to Israel on Thursday night, due to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s planned trip to the Jewish state over the weekend; she was set to attend a Sunday cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. But with Merkel canceling her trip earlier Thursday, also due to the situation in Afghanistan, remaining in Washington longer was less complicated for Bennett.

Bennett earlier tweeted out his condolences over the attack, joining other Israeli officials vowing to support the US.

“The prayers of the people of Israel are with the families of the civilians and soldiers who were murdered today,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Thursday, adding that “we stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the fight against terrorism.”

Biden vowed Thursday to push ahead with the evacuation of US citizens and allies from Kabul and stick to an August 31 deadline, while also vowing to avenge the death of  American service members killed by terrorists in the attack on the perimeter of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai Airport.

A US military official said 13 troops were killed, marking the deadliest attack on US troops in a decade, and the first death of a US service member in Afghanistan since February 2002.

US Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, center left, the commander of U.S. Central Command, and U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Farrell J. Sullivan, the commander of the Naval Amphibious Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, review an aerial photo, at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (Capt. William Urban/U.S. Navy via AP)

An unknown number of Afghans were also killed. Some local officials put the toll at 60 or higher. Graphic video from the aftermath of the attack showed bodies strewn across roads and in an open sewage swale on the airport’s perimeter.

“We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place of our choosing,” Biden said. “These ISIS terrorists will not win. We will rescue the Americans; we will get our Afghan allies out, and our mission will go on. America will not be intimidated.”

The administration has been widely blamed for a chaotic and deadly evacuation that began in earnest only after the collapse of the US-backed Afghan government and the Taliban’s takeover of the country. More than 100,000 people have been evacuated so far – Afghans, Americans and others.

Lazar Berman, AFP and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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