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Biden ‘drops by’ national security adviser’s White House meet with Mossad chief

President makes appearance at US-Israeli meeting on Iran to express condolences over Meron tragedy, US says, downplaying earlier report suggesting more formal gathering

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

US President Joe Biden, left, and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen. (Collage/AP)
US President Joe Biden, left, and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen. (Collage/AP)

US President Joe Biden “dropped by” a meeting at the White House between his National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen on Friday, as a delegation of senior Israeli officials continued their talks in Washington on the Iran nuclear issue.

The apparently unplanned run-in was confirmed by a spokesperson for the US National Security Council who said that Cohen and Sullivan were meeting to “discuss regional security issues.”

“President Biden dropped by to express condolences for the tragedy at Mount Meron,” the spokesperson said Saturday, referring to the crush that killed 45 people.

The comments came hours after Channel 12 reported that Biden and Cohen held a meeting at the White House to discuss Iran. The Mossad chief and confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in the past been accused by opponents of the premier of leaking to the press stories regarding his personal involvement in matters of national security.

Mossad chief Yossi Cohen speaks at a Tel Aviv University cyber conference on June 24, 2019. (Flash90)

Channel 12 had reported that Netanyahu briefed Cohen in advance on the main issues to discuss with the American president. The issues weren’t specified, but the report came after Cohen and other top Israeli security officials held talks with senior American officials this week over the Biden administration’s plans to rejoin the 2015 deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program, which Israel opposes in its current form.

Israel seeks to convince Washington to negotiate an improved deal to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons rather than reenter the limping 2015 accord. Cohen’s visit to Washington also comes weeks after an attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, which Tehran has blamed on Israel.

On Thursday, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met in Washington with Cohen along with Israel’s ambassador Gilad Erdan.

Although other issues were discussed, Israel used Thursday’s meeting to “express strong concerns” about Iran, an official said.

Also attending Thursday’s meeting on the American side was Blinken’s confirmed deputy, Wendy Sherman, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan and two other senior officials: Brett McGurk from the National Security Council and Derek Chollet from the State Department. Cohen and Erdan represented Israel.

Israeli National Security Council chairman Meir Ben-Shabbat (right), and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. (Flash90, AP)

The State Department declined to comment on the meeting or even to confirm that it had happened, but said the Biden administration is committed to coordination and transparency with Israel in its nuclear diplomacy with Iran.

The Biden administration is considering a near wholesale rollback of some of the most stringent Trump-era sanctions imposed on Iran in a bid to get the Islamic Republic to return to compliance with the nuclear accord, according to current and former US officials and others familiar with the matter.

As indirect talks continue in Vienna, American officials have refused to discuss which sanctions are being considered for removal. But they have stressed that they are open to lifting non-nuclear sanctions, such as those tied to terrorism, missile development and human rights, in addition to those related to the nuclear program.

The rollback is expected to be forcefully opposed by Israel and Gulf states.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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