WASHINGTON — The much-anticipated meeting between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US President Joe Biden at the White House was postponed Thursday, after deadly attacks at Kabul airport.
No time for the meeting was announced. A spokesperson for Bennett said a time had not been finalized. Due to the sit-down’s proximity to the Sabbath, Bennett will wait to return to Israel until Saturday night, his office said.
The first sit-down between the two leaders was slated to begin at 11:30 a.m. Thursday, but shortly after noon, Israeli journalists in the White House briefing room were instructed to return to the hotel and await further developments.
Bennett’s advisers reassured 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.
Bennett’s staff were preparing for the possibility of extending the trip over the weekend and were in touch tentatively with the Willard Intercontinental Hotel about extending their stay, as the Orthodox prime minister will not travel over Shabbat.
Bennett had 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.
A warm meeting and photo-op with Biden is 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.
At least 12 US service members, including 11 Marines and one Navy medic, were among those killed in the bombings, according to two US officials.
Officials said a number of US military troops were also wounded, while warning the numbers may grow.
There was no official confirmation of the overall death toll.
Bennett is in Washington for the first time since becoming prime minister, holding a series of meetings with top administration officials, with the Iranian nuclear threat the most pressing issue on his agenda.
Bennett’s government opposes US efforts to return to the Iran nuclear agreement signed in 2015 by the Obama administration and abandoned three years later by former US president Donald Trump. Biden has been seeking a return to the deal, but that has looked increasingly unlikely, as Iran has moved further away from its obligations, and as a hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, has taken office in Tehran.
Bennett came with four primary goals for the trip, a Bennett staffer noted Wednesday evening: to forge a direct connection and rapport with Biden; to help the US understand the prime minister’s approach regarding Iran; to ensure US commitment to replenishing stocks for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system; and to move forward on a visa waiver agreement for Israelis looking to enter the US.
On Wednesday, Bennett met with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article erroneously reported on a scheduled time for the Friday meeting.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.