WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden reaffirmed his plan to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem and expressed his opposition to Israeli evictions of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood during a closed Oval Office meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a senior White House aide in the room told American Jewish leaders in a subsequent phone call on Friday.
Asked by Americans for Peace Now CEO Hadar Susskind whether Biden raised the two issues during his meeting with Bennett, US National Security Council director for the Middle East Barbara Leaf responded, “Yes and Yes,” according to two participants on the call.
Leaf said Biden made clear that he still plans to re-open the de-facto mission to the Palestinians in Jerusalem after it was shuttered by former president Donald Trump in 2019. Asked about the matter during an interview with The New York Times earlier this week, Bennett went the furthest he’s gone to publicly oppose the effort. “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It’s not the capital of other nations,” he said.
The Biden administration announced its plan to reopen the consulate in May, but agreed to hold off on the move until after Bennett’s government passes a budget in November in order to prevent the destabilization of the nascent coalition, according to Israeli officials.
Leaf did not go into specifics about when exactly Biden plans on moving forward with the reopening.
She also said Biden raised his “clear opposition” to evictions in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, where several families are waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on the matter. The president told Bennett he wanted to see a resolution on the matter that would allow the families to remain in their homes, participants quoted Leaf as saying.
According to a subsequent readout of the meeting between the two leaders, Biden underscored to Bennett “the importance of steps to improve the lives of Palestinians and support greater economic opportunities for them” and noted “the importance of refraining from actions that could exacerbate tensions, contribute to a sense of unfairness, and undermine efforts to build trust.”
The Sheikh Jarrah evictions have been a rallying cry for Palestinians in recent months and sparked violent clashes in East Jerusalem that spread far beyond the contested city — and were even partly responsible for the flare-up between Israel and Gaza terror groups in May.
Leaf took four questions during the call, including one from an organization executive who asked whether Biden raised the issue of “creeping annexation” in the West Bank.
The NSC Mideast director responded that Biden conveyed to Bennett his opposition to settlement growth as well, though one participant on the call said that Leaf’s phrasing was not particularly forceful. Biden also reiterated his support for a two-state solution in the closed-door meeting.
The president “reaffirmed his view that a negotiated two-state solution is the only viable path to achieving a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” according to the readout.
Bennett in turn assured Biden that he would not officially annex any West Bank territory, though would allow for steady growth in the settlements. Moreover, Bennett argued that his known opposition to entering negotiations to establish a Palestinian state allows him to advance smaller gestures aimed at improving economic conditions for Palestinians, according to a senior Israeli official who briefed reporters after the meeting.
Another Jewish organization executive quizzed Leaf on any progress the administration has been making on advancing the Abraham Accords, an initiative launched by former president Donald Trump that saw Israel establish relations with four Arab nations last year. She responded that Biden told Bennett that he takes the issue very seriously and views it as a priority, but did not go any further into specifics, similar to previous briefings by Biden officials on the matter.
She did say that the administration was working to push the normalization agreement with Sudan “across the finish line,” according to one participant on the 30-minute call.
One participant lamented that half of the questions were implicitly critical of the Israeli government and “did not represent the opinions of the majority of representatives on the call.”
However, another more dovish executive told the Times of Israel that while the questions were less in line with the stance of many Jewish American groups, “they are very representative of American Jews as a whole,” pointing to a recent poll that found a large majority of US Jews believe one can criticize Israel and still identify as pro-Israel.
Before opening up to questions, Leaf gave a brief summary of the expanded working meeting that the two leaders held with their aides after meeting one-on-one in the White House dining room.
Leaf stressed that the visit had gone very well and that both leaders are eager to work with one another. She said Bennett stressed to the president his desire to maintain bipartisan support for Israel in an increasingly polarized US.
“It seemed like the more substantive parts of their conversations likely took place in the one-on-one meeting, as everything else seemed well-rehearsed and finalized beforehand,” said one Jewish organization executive who was on the call.
During his public remarks in between the two meetings with Bennett, Biden pledged that Iran will “never” get a nuclear weapon, and saying that although he prefers a diplomatic solution to the matter, “other options” will be considered if negotiations fail.
The president “made clear his commitment to ensure Iran never develops a nuclear weapon,” and the two leaders “reviewed steps to deter and contain Iran’s dangerous regional behavior, and “reiterated their commitments to work constructively and deepen cooperation to address all aspects of Israel’s security against Iran and other threats.”
Speaking after their one-on-one meeting, which lasted about 50 minutes, Biden said the two leaders’ teams would discuss “the unwavering commitment that we have in the United States to Israel’s security” as well as “ways to advance peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians.”
Bennett thanked Biden for his support of Israel, especially during the May conflict with Hamas in Gaza.
“That’s where friendship is really tested,” he said. “And Israel knows that we have no better or more reliable ally in the world than the United States of America.”
He returned to the theme he has expressed throughout his visit, that the Israeli government is coming with a “new spirit of goodwill… of hope, a spirit of decency and honesty, a spirit of unity and bipartisanship.”
Bennett added: “You and I are going to write yet another chapter in the beautiful story of the friendship between our two nations.”