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Blinken and Abbas discuss Biden's trip, Abu Akleh probe

Biden congratulates new PM Lapid, thanks Bennett for ‘friendship over the past year’

Issuing tweet the same minute that Lapid becomes premier, US president says he’s looking forward to seeing Lapid and Bennett on visit this month

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

Then-finance minister Yair Lapid meets with then-US vice president Joe Biden in Washington, DC, in 2013. (courtesy/ File)
Then-finance minister Yair Lapid meets with then-US vice president Joe Biden in Washington, DC, in 2013. (courtesy/ File)

US President Joe Biden congratulated new Prime Minister Yair Lapid in a tweet published the minute Lapid officially replaced Naftali Bennett as Israel’s premier at midnight between Thursday and Friday.

Biden also thanked Bennett for his “friendship over the past year.” The two never met before Biden became president but Bennett was hosted in the White House last August and the two met briefly on the sidelines of the COP26 climate summit in November. Their offices say they managed to build a close rapport over the past year.

Bennett swiftly responded to Biden’s tweet.

“Thank you, Joe. We’re looking forward to seeing you soon, here in our eternal capital Jerusalem. You’re a true friend of the State of Israel,” Bennett wrote on Twitter.

While Lapid will now be the one to greet Biden when he lands at Ben Gurion airport on July 13, Bennett is still slated to meet the president during the latter’s two-day visit to Israel and the West Bank.

“I look forward to seeing you both in July to celebrate the unbreakable US-Israel partnership,” Biden added in the tweet from his office.

Lapid thanked Biden on Friday morning, tweeting: “The ties between Israel and the United States are unbreakable. They are based on deep foundations of shared values and a common vision for the future.

“I look forward to welcoming you to Israel and strengthening the unique alliance between us,” he added.

Lapid’s relationship with Biden is also rather limited, though the two did meet once in 2013 when the former was finance minister and the latter was US vice president.

“I look forward to continuing to work closely with Prime Minister Lapid to bolster all aspects of the enduring US-Israel partnership and to counter shared threats,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a separate statement. “At the same time, I would like to recognize outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for his leadership as Israel’s premier over the past year and thank him for his continued efforts.”

“The bond between the United States and Israel has never been stronger,” Blinken added.

Also congratulating Lapid were Congressmen Ted Deutch of Florida and Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who are respectively the chair and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism.

“We look forward to working closely with Prime Minister Lapid to continue strengthening the relationship between the United States and Israel, an enduring relationship based on shared values that enjoys deep bipartisan support across America,” the Democrat and Republican lawmakers said in a joint statement.

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi was the second world leader to send his warm wishes to Lapid, tweeting Friday morning: “I look forward to continue furthering our strategic partnership as we celebrate 30 years of full diplomatic relations.” He also issued his congratulatory statement in Hebrew.

The United Kingdom’s foreign minister Liz Truss said in a tweet that she was “Looking forward to working with my good friend @YairLapid as he becomes Israel’s 14th Prime Minister,” adding: “The UK-Israel relationship continues to go from strength to strength, bringing prosperity and upholding security for both nations.”

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the Climate Action Summit in the United Nations General Assembly, at UN headquarters on September 23, 2019. (Jason DeCrow/AP)

Separately Thursday, Blinken spoke on the phone with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Much of the call focused on Biden’s upcoming trip to Israel, readouts from both of them said.

Abbas expressed his desire that the visit will be used to create a diplomatic horizon for a two-state solution, according to his office. Frustration in Ramallah with both Jerusalem and Washington has gradually increased during the past year over what the PA says are unmet assurances by Israel to promote confidence-building measures and unfulfilled pledges by the Biden administration to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem and the PLO diplomatic office in Washington.

The State Department said in a statement on the call that Blinken “stressed the US commitment to improving the quality of life of the Palestinian people in tangible ways and the Administration’s support for a negotiated two-state solution.”

“The Secretary also emphasized the importance of thorough, transparent, and impartial investigations into the circumstances of Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing,” the US statement said. An investigation released by the PA said the Al Jazeera journalist fatally shot in Jenin in May was intentionally targeted by the IDF. Israel has strenuously denied targeting Abu Akleh and says it can’t conclusively determine who shot her unless the PA turns over the bullet in its possession.

Ramallah has in turn called for Israel to hand over the suspected weapon.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) speaks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on May 25, 2021, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Alex Brandon/Pool/AFP)

The US has thus far refrained from opening a probe of its own; Abu Akleh was also an American citizen. It has instead been urging the sides to share evidence with one another.

Earlier Thursday, Biden said one of the purposes of his upcoming trip to the Middle East is to “deepen Israel’s integration in the region.”

“That’s why Israeli leaders have come out so strongly for my going to Saudi [Arabia],” Biden added, publicly revealing the lobbying by Jerusalem for him to visit Jeddah, amid apprehension from some in his party over the Gulf kingdom’s human rights record.

Biden will travel to Israel and the West Bank on July 13 and 14 before continuing to Saudi Arabia, where he will participate for two days in the GCC+3 annual summit of regional leaders from UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, in addition to Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.

The president notably made no mention of the Palestinians in his answer to a reporter’s question about the trip, a further hint regarding its scope.

While there has been some speculation in Israel that Biden would hold off on visiting, given the political upheaval of the past month, the White House has been adamant from the get-go that such issues are not part of its calculus.

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