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PM says joint US-Israel team formed to combat Iran

Bennett to Jewish leaders: I won’t meet PA chief Abbas; he took Israel to ICC

In call with US Conference of Presidents, PM says he’ll take steps to ‘reduce friction’ with Palestinians, arguing that middle ground is worth pursuing even if conflict unsolvable

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) speaks via Zoom with the Conference of Presidents on September 3, 2021. (Screen capture/Courtesy)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) speaks via Zoom with the Conference of Presidents on September 3, 2021. (Screen capture/Courtesy)

NEW YORK — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Friday that he would not meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, given Abbas’s decision to bring Israel before the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes.

“As someone who comes from the business world, when someone sues me, I’m not really that nice to him,” Bennett said during an off-the-record Zoom call with leaders from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, according to one of the participants who spoke to The Times of Israel afterward.

In March, the ICC’s chief prosecutor announced that she was opening an investigation into actions committed by Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem since June 13, 2014. It was Abbas’s request to The Hague that led to the opening of the probe.

Bennett was asked during the Friday call about the recent meeting between Abbas and Defense Minister Benny Gantz and its significance in terms of the new government’s policy vis a vis the Palestinians.

The Israeli premier reiterated his belief that no political breakthrough will be possible in the near future. He highlighted what he views as a “dichotomy where either you go all at it with a Palestinian state or you do nothing,” according to another participant on the call who added that Bennett maintained that there was a middle ground.

Bennett said that even if the conflict cannot be solved, as he currently believes, there are steps that can be taken to “reduce the scope of friction” with the Palestinians, the participants quoted him as having said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (Composite/AP)

While the prime minister did not get into specifics, he said the steps would have to deal with the economy, arguing that allowing Palestinians to make a good living and live in dignity would go a long way.

His government has already approved thousands of work permits for Palestinians in Israel, is slated to approve hundreds of building permits for Palestinians in Area C — where such approvals have been virtually non-existent in recent years — and has announced plans to provide a NIS 500 million advance to the PA as Ramallah undergoes an intensifying financial crisis.

However, Bennett clarified that he did not want to “create any illusions” that a political breakthrough is imminent, arguing that this could cause “negative ramifications,” participants on the call quoted him as having said.

The premier also pointed to the PA’s continued payment of monthly stipends to security prisoners, including ones who have killed Israelis, along with their families and the families of those who were killed carrying out attacks against Israelis.

The PA has told the US it is working to reform the welfare system, according to US and Palestinian officials, but it has yet to make any announcements to that end.

Bennett reiterated that his government would take actions to stabilize the area and avoid both annexation of West Bank territory as well as a settlement freeze, according to participants on the call.

Border Police troops are seen deployed as Palestinian worshippers protest following Friday prayers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs denouncing Israeli construction plans at the site, in the city of Hebron in the West Bank on August 13, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Relatedly, he said one of his goals would be to build good relations with neighboring countries such as Jordan and Egypt and that the work toward that effort has already begun.

He noted that the three countries have common interests, such as combatting Iran and maintaining regional stability. Bennett traveled to Jordan for a covert meeting with King Abdullah during one of his first weeks in office and is slated to fly to Egypt for a public sit-down with Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in the coming weeks.

Asked about other hot-button issues that have been a source of friction between his government and the Biden administration — namely the latter’s plan to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem, which served as the de facto mission to the Palestinians as well as the looming eviction of Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah — Bennett said his government was looking for “no dramas” and to solve such disagreements as quietly as possible.

Accordingly, he kept his remarks on the consulate rather brief, only saying that Jerusalem is the capital of one state, and that is Israel.

On Sheikh Jarrah, Bennett described the issue as a “civil suit” and not one in which the government could intervene. He also noted that the Supreme Court had recently offered the Palestinian residents a compromise that would see the Palestinians remain in their homes as protected tenants, making it harder — but not impossible — to evict them. Under the deal, they would pay NIS 1,500 ($465) in yearly fees to Nahalat Shimon, the ultra-nationalist Jewish group claiming ownership of the homes.

The prime minister argued that it is now up to the Palestinians to decide after having been offered “a good solution,” a participant on the call recalled Bennett as having said.

The premier used the call to boast of the politically diverse nature of his government, saying that there was a lot of goodwill between the various partners. He said his goal is to have “sprit of goodwill spill-over” into Israel’s relationship with the Biden administration,” adding that he has found a similar desire in Washington as well.

Protesters demonstrate in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on July 30, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

He clarified that there are, and still would be disagreements, but that the sides would act like “menches” to each other and discuss their disagreements behind closed doors.

Bennett also was quick to point out that he has found a true friend of Israel in the US president along with his senior staffers, expressing his appreciation for their willingness to meet with him last week amid the attack in Kabul and their ongoing evacuation from Afghanistan. Bennett said he was working to restore bipartisan support for Israel, and met separately with a group of visiting Democratic Senators in Tel Aviv on Friday, according to an aide of one of the lawmakers.

Cold War with Iran

Bennett took the opportunity to update the call participants on what he told Biden regarding Iran. He reiterated his belief that he views the regional conflict as analogous to the Cold War where Israel plays the role of the US, with Iran being the Soviet Union. He noted a multidimensional approach to bringing down the USSR, adding that the same would be required in dealing with Iran. He described Israel as a “solution for the world” as it boasts “nine million boots on the ground” to combat the growing threat of Iran, a participant on the call recalled him as having said.

Bennett said he presented a “four-pillar” plan for combatting Iran to Biden, which deals with stopping its uranium enrichment, its weaponization, its ballistic missiles program and its regional aggression,” instead of fighting all day on the JCPOA,” a participant quoted him as having said of the Iran nuclear deal.

Bennett clarified that he opposes the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by former president Barak Obama in 2015 and vacated by former president Donald Trump in 2018. The prime minister said that he recognizes where the US stands on the matter, but appreciated that Biden during his visit last week said that he was committed to Iran never obtaining a nuclear weapon and was willing to consider other options if the JCPOA cannot be revived.

The premier said he and Biden had agreed that a joint US-Israeli team would be formed with the goal of putting Iran’s nuclear program “back into their box” and prevent it from ever being able to break out toward a weapon. The joint team would be led by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Israeli National Security Council chairman Eyal Hulata, Bennett said, according to a participant on the call.

He insisted that he would not ask the US to send soldiers to protect Israel, but would request US support, help in forming a coalition to defeat Iran as well as resources. Bennett noted that Israel is under a “huge threat” and needs means to defend itself such as “Iron Dome, lasers and other stuff” one participant quoted him as having said.

US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 27, 2021. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP)

Updating participants on his government’s efforts to combat the coronavirus, Bennett predicted that the number of daily cases would begin to drop in the next ten days thanks to the government’s efforts, which include distribution of third dose booster shots, testing all children ahead of the school year and easing pressure on hospitals.

Western Wall deal

Asked whether his government would implement a currently frozen deal to expand the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall as recently indicated by Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, Bennett was less committal.

Beyond noting that he had been the minister behind the construction of the pavilion in 2014, the premier said his government would look into such issues only after a budget is passed by the Knesset in November.

“Once the budget is [passed], we’ll have two years of stability, and that’s when we can start dealing with more complicated issues,” one participant quoted Bennett as having said.

Bennett ended the call by thanking the group for its support of Israel, adding that the Jewish state had their backs as well.

In a statement following the Zoom, Conference of Presidents CEO William Daroff described the conversation as “very warm and productive”

“Given the long-standing relationship between the Conference of Presidents and the Prime Minister, the 30-minute meeting was an open and meaningful exchange of views, as well as an opportunity for the mutual exchange of holiday greetings and wishes for a productive, healthy, and peaceful new year,” Daroff said.

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