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Likud blasts Bennett over 'dangerous statement'

Bennett said to vow he won’t openly lobby against US return to Iran nuke deal

Israeli official tells news site PM stressed to Biden that despite disagreements, he wants them to work together ‘according to rules of honesty and decency’

President Joe Biden meets Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden meets Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pledged to US President Joe Biden that despite opposing a potential Washington move to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, he will not wage a public campaign against a possible American return to the accord, the Walla news site reported on Saturday.

Citing two American sources familiar with the details of Bennett and Biden’s meeting on Friday at the White House, the news site said that the Israeli premier stressed the same point in his sit-downs with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

Bennett’s government opposes US efforts to return to the Iran nuclear agreement, signed in 2015 by the administration led by Barack Obama and abandoned three years later by Donald Trump.

But, according to the sources, Bennett said that he believes dialogue will lead to a better outcome, and that the White House was very appreciative of his stance on the matter. Many current administration officials also served under Obama when he clashed with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the deal. Netanyahu, now the opposition leader, lobbied against the deal in a 2015 speech to the US Congress, infuriating Obama, and continues to vociferously oppose a return to the accord, which he argues paves the way to an Iranian nuclear arsenal.

“Even though there are disagreements, I want us to work according to rules of honesty and decency,” Bennett told Biden, according to an Israeli source quoted in the report.

Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party on Saturday night blasted Bennett over the report.

“For a picture at the White House, Bennett completely folded in front of Biden and harmed Israel’s security when he promised not to fight publicly,” Likud said in a statement. “This is a dangerous statement that combines inexperience, irresponsibility and a lack of leadership.”

“Iran is galloping toward the bomb and the weak government in Israel proved that it does not intend to fight against it.”

Netanyahu openly campaigned against the deal before it was signed in 2015 under then-US president Barack Obama and has recently been vocal in opposing Biden’s intention to restore the agreement.

Biden’s administration has been seeking a return to the nuclear deal, but this 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 and Biden were able to set “rules of the game” for how their offices work during their terms, a senior Israeli official told reporters on Friday after the meeting, saying that they had agreed there would be vigorous direct open dialogue, and that disagreements would be kept quiet.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) and US President Joe Biden have coffee in the White House private presidential dining hall, on August 27, 2021. (White House/Twitter)

The atmosphere in the White House was “not optimistic” about returning to the nuclear deal with Iran, the official added, stressing that the fate of the agreement depended on Iran.

During public remarks the two gave in the Oval Office, Biden 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 and vowed that the US would ensure Iran “never” attains nuclear weapons.

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.

During the meeting in the White House, Bennett presented his two-pronged approach to dealing with Iran — confronting its regional activities in a quiet, multifaceted “gray zone” campaign, and keeping Tehran permanently a year away from nuclear breakout capability.

US President Joe Biden listens during a meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office at the White House, on August 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Pool/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP)

Bennett also presented his view of a Middle East “cold war,” in which Israel is analogous to America, and Iran is a Soviet-like dictatorship, hated by its people and rotten from within.

Bennett was in Washington for the first time since becoming prime minister in June and held a series of meetings with top administration officials. On Wednesday, Bennett met with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Blinken, and Sullivan.

His meeting with Biden on Thursday was pushed back to Friday because of the deadly suicide attack at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan, forcing Bennett and his staff to spend Shabbat in Washington before flying back early Sunday morning.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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