Bennett and Biden meeting in Washington set for August 26

Prime minister to make snap 48-hour trip to US due to COVID precautions; premier says visit will focus on Iran, but White House says sides will discuss Palestinian issue too

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and US President Joe Biden. (composite image: AP, Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and US President Joe Biden. (composite image: AP, Flash90)

NEW YORK — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will fly to Washington next week where he will meet with US President Joe Biden for the first time, the White House and an Israeli official said Wednesday.

The two will meet at the White House on August 26, the White House confirmed in a statement from Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

Tensions with Iran will be high on the agenda for the Thursday meeting, though it will also likely be overshadowed by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, with Biden under fire over the chaotic US pullout and facing questions over Washington’s commitment to other allies around the globe.

Psaki said the visit would “strengthen the enduring partnership between the United States and Israel, reflect the deep ties between our governments and our people, and underscore the United States’ unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.”

“The President and Prime Minister Bennett will discuss critical issues related to regional and global security, including Iran,” she said.

She added that peace efforts with the Palestinians would also be discussed,

Bennett’s visit is not expected to last more than 48 hours due to COVID precautions, sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said. It will be his second foreign visit since taking office in June, following an earlier trip to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah.

Bennett will leave Israel on Tuesday, the PMO confirmed.

US President Joe Biden speaks from the East Room of the White House, on Thursday, August 12, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Just weeks ago, Bennett had urged Israelis to refrain from travel abroad in order to prevent the import of new COVID-19 variants. Both Israel and parts of the US are facing surging infection numbers, largely blamed on the Delta variant of the virus.

Members of Bennett’s delegation will remain together for the entire trip and will not leave their hotel except for official meetings, according to the Walla news site.

The PMO had initially hoped the visit would include a stop in New York for meetings with American Jewish leaders, but such plans had to be shelved as cases continued to rise both in Israel and the US.

Asked about the trip during a Wednesday press conference, Bennett refrained from confirming that it had been set, but said his meeting with Biden would be an important one, focusing primarily on the issue of Iran.

“We completed a process of formulating a policy… about the Iranian issue in all dimensions,” Bennett said.

He touted “an approach of cooperation, an approach that will know how to block Iran’s negative regional activities of instability, harming of human rights, terror and preventing Iran from advancing toward a nuclear weapon breakout.”

“Iran is at the most advanced point ever in the field of [uranium] enrichment, but we know and we have a plan to deal with this and maintain the security of Israeli citizens,” Bennett added.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference at his office in Jerusalem on August 18, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett’s office had been hoping the visit would take place in July after receiving an invitation already in June, but a combination of the White House’s busy schedule and the premier’s desire to wait until after the Knesset recessed this month pushed off what will be the first-ever meeting between the two leaders.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a frequent visitor to the White House, but his public battle with former president Barack Obama and close ties with former president Donald Trump soured some in the Biden administration toward him. Officials have expressed hopes that Bennett and Biden can foster a new chapter in the relationship.

While a coalition source close to Bennett told the Times of Israel last month that the premier hoped a new ambassador to the US would be in place in time for the White House visit, that will not be the case. Bennett announced former brigadier general Mike Herzog as his pick for envoy to replace former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ambassador Gilad Erdan, but Herzog has yet to be approved by the cabinet. A spokesperson for Erdan, who agreed to step down but stay on as UN envoy, said he would continue serving as ambassador to the US next week as well.

The visit will come as the Biden administration faces significant criticism over its ongoing pullout of US troops from Afghanistan, and Israeli officials told Axios that they hope Bennett’s meeting won’t be overtaken by the news.

Taliban fighters patrol inside the city of Kandahar, southwest Afghanistan, August 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Sidiqullah Khan)

The officials also expressed disappointment over Biden’s handling of the crisis, saying that “the US wants to disengage from the Middle East but finds out the Middle East is running after it.”

Analysts have noted that some US allies may reconsider their reliance on the US in the wake of the debacle.

Bennett’s senior aides — incoming National Security Council chairman Eyal Hulata and diplomatic adviser Shimrit Meir, were in Washington earlier this month for talks with White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and other senior US officials as the sides prepared for the Biden-Bennett sit-down.

The sides “discussed the strategic challenges in the region, including the threat posed by Iran, and agreed to consult closely on these issues,” according to a US readout of the meeting.

“They also exchanged views about the opportunities in the region, including advancing the normalization of relations between Israel and countries in the Arab and Muslim world and recent positive developments in Israel’s relationship with Jordan,” the statement said.

“Mr. Sullivan also stressed the importance of pursuing positive steps related to the Palestinians, which are critical to peace, security and prosperity.”

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