WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden sought to assure Israel that he would not tolerate a nuclear Iran as he met with outgoing Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Monday, amid growing apprehension over the US administration’s effort to reenter the Iran nuclear deal.
Biden noted that he ordered airstrikes on Sunday targeting facilities the US military says were used by Iran-backed militia groups near the border between Iraq and Syria. The rhetoric seemed to underscore that he would remain tough on malign Iran activity even as he seeks a diplomatic track to stem Tehran’s nuclear program.
“What I can say to you is that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch,” Biden said at the White House meeting.
Rivlin said he was “very much satisfied” by Biden’s statement.
“Things are still far from decided,” Biden said, referring to talks to revive Iran’s 2015 accord with world powers to limit Tehran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. Former US President Donald Trump, with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s backing, abandoned the accord in 2018, but the Biden administration has sought to re-enter the deal.
Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has maintained Netanyahu’s line of opposition to the pact, which Israel maintains still allows Tehran to progress toward nuclear weapons and develop ballistic missiles while supporting proxy groups that sow terror abroad.
However, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has pledged to handle disagreements behind closed doors, in contrast to Netanyahu, who openly publicized his bitter opposition to the American administration approach.
Biden said he hoped to meet Bennett at the White House “very soon.” Following their talks, Rivlin told reporters in Hebrew that Biden “thinks it is necessary to invite the prime minister as soon as possible in order to coordinate matters regarding the way forward on the problems that the world is facing and in the Middle East.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki earlier said the sides were “working on a date” for a Biden-Bennett meeting. Bennett’s office confirmed the talks to Israel’s Walla news site.
Israel has “no greater friend” than the US, Rivlin said at the start of the meeting with Biden, attempting to downplay the seriousness of any rift arising from disagreements over Iran or other policy matters.
“We, according to real friendship, from time to time discuss matters and even agree not to agree about everything,” he said, apparently alluding to the Iran issue and disagreements over the Palestinian conflict. “But we count on you, and your declaration just now really brought Israelis to understand that we have a great friend in the White House.”
Rivlin later told reporters that “Biden was a real great friend of Israel.”
“We found a friend who was responsive to our requests and demands to keep an eye on everything related to the agreement being formed with Iran,” he said.
Rivlin, on his last foreign visit as president, is set to leave office on July 7 after a seven-year term. Isaac Herzog, a former parliament member who most recently headed the Jewish Agency for Israel, will take over as Israeli president.
Rivlin later met with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and 11 other House members from both parties. Pelosi said support for Israel in Congress remained bipartisan “because of our shared values and because of our mutual security concerns.”
During Netanyahu’s time in office, he was accused of harming the bipartisan nature of that support by publicly feuding with former president Barack Obama, especially over the nuclear accord, and by closely allying with Republican lawmakers.
Among those joining Rivlin and Biden in their meeting were Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan and Deputy US Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, a key architect of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Prior to his trip, Rivlin held consultations with Bennett and Lapid to coordinate messaging on various issues. During a private portion of the meeting with Biden, which lasted about an hour, Rivlin was expected to bring up Iran and Israel’s demands for the return of Israeli captives and soldiers’ remains being held in Gaza by the enclave’s Hamas terror group rulers.
Meeting with heads of Jewish organizations and community leaders in New York on Sunday night, Rivlin said Iran’s election of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as president was “further proof of the terrible danger that the Iranian regime poses to the Iranian people, to Israel, to the Middle East and to the entire world.”
“I intend to talk about this with President Biden during our meeting,” Rivlin said.
Biden said he would talk about Iran and the aftermath of the Gaza war with Rivlin. The president also underscored his support for continued normalization of relations between Israel and countries in the Arab and Muslim world and planned to reiterate the administration’s promise to resupply Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which was depleted during the 11-day war with Hamas in Gaza.
“As American president, my commitment to Israel is… ironclad. It’s something that I often say, ‘If there wasn’t an Israel, we’d have to make one.’ This includes… an unwavering commitment to Israel’s self defense,” he said.
Before meeting Biden, Rivlin also met with Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates envoy to the US, to personally thank him for his significant role in bringing the Abraham Accords — which saw Israel and Abu Dhabi normalize ties last year — to fruition.
Biden has low hopes, at least for the moment, of reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, according to an official familiar with Biden administration deliberations. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said Biden administration officials are starting at square one in building contacts with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, a relationship that eroded during the Trump administration.
The meeting with Rivlin came one day after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in Rome with Lapid, a centrist who along with Bennett and six other political allies built a fragile coalition government that ousted Netanyahu after more than 12 years.
Aviv Kohavi, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, met last week with Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and other senior national security officials. Kohavi reiterated Israel’s opposition to efforts by the Biden administration to revive the 2015 accord.
US administration officials, however, have countered in talks with Kohavi and others in the new Israeli government that it’s worth giving diplomacy a shot at stopping Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapons system, even if it’s not guaranteed, the official said.