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Bennett meets new US ambassador, cheers Israel’s return to being bipartisan issue

Though not mentioning Iran, PM appears to indirectly bring up issue via Hanukkah reference

US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides, left, meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, December 5, 2021. (GPO/Amos Ben-Gershom)
US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides, left, meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, December 5, 2021. (GPO/Amos Ben-Gershom)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met Sunday with new US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides, thanking the envoy for the Biden administration’s efforts to restore Israel as a bipartisan issue in Washington.

Though there was no mention of Iran and its nuclear program in an official statement from Bennett’s office featuring his remarks, the prime minister appeared to indirectly refer to the issue in his comments to Nides by linking it to the story of the eight-day Hanukkah festival, the last night of which was marked as the two men met at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

As world powers met in Vienna to save an unraveling 2015 nuclear deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear research in return for the lifting of sanctions, Israel has increased its rhetoric against the US reversing its exit from the pact while also threatening to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, even without help from other countries.

“I want to thank President [Joe] Biden and the administration for the warm friendship, for the candidness, for the approach of bringing Israel yet again to be a bipartisan issue, and not partisan,” Bennett said, referring to ties under previous Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which were seen as overly leaning toward the Republicans.

He praised the “good spirit” of the relationship between the two countries.

The prime minister mentioned the Hanukkah story, in which the ancient Maccabees defeated a larger Greek army to restore the Temple in Jerusalem.

“Hanukkah is a symbol of light, and how light can prevail upon darkness,” Bennett said. “And right over here, about 2,100 years ago, the Maccabees were fighting a much bigger enemy, but we prevailed. We prevailed because we fought for good, we fought for freedom.”

Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, generally a nonpolitical position, had delivered an uncharacteristically blunt message about Iran earlier Sunday as he welcomed Nides.

“If the international community does not take a vigorous stance on this issue, Israel will do so. Israel will protect itself,” Herzog said.

US ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides (R) presents his credentials to President Isaac Herzog at Beit Hanasi in Jerusalem, December 5, 2021 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

On Sunday, Hebrew media reports said that Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Mossad chief David Barnea, during their meetings this week in Washington with senior Biden administration officials, will push for the United States to carry out a military strike on Iranian targets.

According to reports from Israel’s three main TV news, which did not cite sources, Gantz and Barnea will urge their American interlocutors to develop a “Plan B” vis-à-vis Iran, seeing the stalled nuclear talks in Vienna as an opportunity to press the US to take a more aggressive stance toward the Islamic Republic.

The reports came after the nuclear talks were suspended after five days — with Iran digging in and its negotiating partners openly voicing frustration and pessimism.

After the talks in Vienna were halted last week, the United States said Iran did not appear to be serious. American and European officials accused Iran of backtracking on previous promises. Even Russia, which has stronger relations with Iran, questioned Iran’s commitment to the process. Israel, an outside observer with a stake in the outcome of the talks, has ramped up its rhetoric.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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