WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Friday that during his meeting with US President Joe Biden he extended an invitation for him to visit Israel after the pandemic has subsided.
“I invited the president to Israel after we defeat the Delta variant,” Bennett said in a briefing to the Israeli reporters who traveled with him to Washington. Israel has been leading the way in pushing third-shot boosters to overcome the variant that threatened to undo the progress achieved by the vaccination campaign.
Bennett was emphatic about how well his meeting with Biden had gone.
“It was a wonderful meeting, especially the one-on-one,” he said. “It was mostly a working meeting. There was a feeling that we’ve known each other for a long time. I found a leader who loves Israel, who knows exactly what he wants, and is attentive to our needs.”
The premier said that even after the blast in Kabul forced the cancellation of the meeting originally scheduled for Thursday, Biden had been adamant about making sure it still happened and rescheduling it for the next day.
“I am truly grateful to the president and his entire staff for their determination to carry out the meeting,” Bennett said, praising the Biden administration for its “attentiveness and focus at the height of a complex American incident.”
The prime minister said he was pleased to hear Biden’s insistence that Iran will never acquire a nuclear weapon.
“Both President Biden and I are determined that Iran won’t ever get a nuclear weapon. I am happy that we agree on the goal. Our staffs will work in the coming days, weeks, and months to develop channels of cooperation,” he said.
“But I must say there isn’t a lot of time. The subject is urgent, and cannot be pushed aside,” Bennett added.
During public remarks the two gave in the Oval Office, Biden still clarified that he prefers a diplomatic approach to block Iran’s path to the bomb, namely the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. However, he said that “other options” would be pursued if those negotiations failed.
Later pressed on what was meant by other options, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declined to elaborate. Israel has been pushing the US to put a “credible military threat” against Iran on the table while negotiating to curb its nuclear efforts.
Speaking along with Bennett to reporters after their one-on-one meeting, which lasted about 50 minutes, Biden said the two leaders’ teams would discuss “the unwavering commitment that we have in the United States to Israel’s security” as well as “ways to advance peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians.”
Biden added that the US supported Israel developing “deeper ties” with its Arab and Muslim neighbors, though he did not use the term “Abraham Accords,” as seems to be administration policy toward the deals mediated by the previous administration.
The American leader also committed to replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which saw heavy use during May’s 11-day conflict with Hamas in Gaza. And he said he’d direct his team to work toward getting Israel into the US visa waiver program, “and get that done.”
Bennett thanked Biden for his support of Israel, especially during the May conflict.
“That’s where friendship is really tested,” he said. “And Israel knows that we have no better or more reliable ally in the world than the United States of America.”
He returned to the theme he has expressed throughout his visit, that the Israeli government is coming with a “new spirit of goodwill… of hope, a spirit of decency and honesty, a spirit of unity and bipartisanship.”
He said that Israel looks to do good in the world, but added that “in our region, doing good is not enough,” citing the threats posed by Islamic State, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Iranian militias.
“Israel has to be strong in order to do good… and we cannot lose sight for even one moment that we’re in the toughest neighborhood in the world.” He thanked Biden for “helping yet again to fortify Israel’s strategic advantage.”
Both leaders opened their statements acknowledging Thursday’s deadly terrorist attack by the Islamic State in Kabul, Afghanistan, which led to the deaths of dozens of Afghans and at least 13 US servicemembers. Biden said that “our hearts go out to all those we’ve lost” in Afghanistan while vowing to “complete the mission” in the country.
“The prime minister and I talked about it slightly,” said Biden, “and he’s a military man, gone to war and lost a friend.”
Bennett offered his “condolences and deep sadness” on behalf of the Israeli people to the US. He said the US soldiers killed were there to save lives and that this was “the very definition of courage and sacrifice. May they rest in peace.”
Especially on this day, he said, he wanted to stress that Israel “always stands together with the United State of America unequivocally.”
Bennet thanked Biden for his commitment to ensuring Iran never gets a nuclear bomb, and his openness to considering other paths if talks do not lead to a deal.
The two also mentioned the Israeli and American campaigns to vaccinate against COVID-19, and particularly both nations’ efforts to administer booster shots. Israeli began giving third shots several weeks ago and this week widened eligibility to anyone above age 30. The US is planning to start giving boosters in mid-September.
Noting the “tough decision” he made last month to pioneer the distribution of a third booster shot for Israelis before other countries did so, Bennett said: “I can report to you, Mr. President, and to everyone that we’ve reached almost three million Israelis that have received the booster shot. And the bottom line is, it’s safe and it works. The good news, finally, is that the tide is turning in Israel.”
It was not clear where the figure given by Bennett came from, as according to Health Ministry figures, some 1.9 million boosters have been administered so far.
Concluding his remarks, Bennett quoted from the biblical prophet Isaiah, from whom Biden also quoted Thursday following the Kabul blast.
“Lift up thine eyes round about and behold: all these gather themselves together, and come to thee. As I live, saith the LORD, thou shalt surely clothe thee with them all as with an ornament, and gird thyself with them, like a bride,” he said in Hebrew.
Turning to translate, Bennett joked, “I can say anything now, right?” before going on to say: “What this [passage] means is the sons and daughters of the Jewish people are going to come back to our land, are going to nurse our ancient land and rebuild it. And this ancient Jewish prophecy is today Israel’s reality. And it’s a miracle that you’ve been so central and so part of it for so many years.”
He added: “You and I are going to write yet another chapter in the beautiful story of the friendship between our two nations.”
Thanking Bennett for his words, Biden noted, that much credit should go to his former boss, ex-president Barack Obama, not an especially popular figure in Israel, “for making sure that we committed to that qualitative edge you would have relative to your friends in the region. So, he’s the one who deserves the credit.”
To which Bennett said: “Thank him as well.”