Dermer, Hanegbi meet with senior US officials in DC amid West Bank tensions

Israeli delegation sits down with US Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Adviser Sullivan as White House pushes ‘steps to restore calm,’ weighs barring Smotrich

File: From left to right: Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi at the State Department in Washington on March 7, 2023. (Antony Blinken/Twitter)
File: From left to right: Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi at the State Department in Washington on March 7, 2023. (Antony Blinken/Twitter)

A pair of senior Israeli officials held meetings with US counterparts in Washington on Monday, as the sides worked to present a business-as-usual front, even as the Biden administration was considering barring entry to an Israeli minister who called to “wipe out” an entire Palestinian town last week.

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to discuss Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power and its threat to the region, but the conversation also included focus on the ongoing violence in the West Bank, according to US readouts.

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said Blinken, Dermer, and Hanegbi discussed US-Israel ties, the commitment to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and the joint work to advance “mutual cooperation on threats posed by Iran,” as well as the recent violence in Israel and the West Bank and “the need for all parties to take steps to restore calm and de-escalate tensions.”

Dermer and Hanegbi and a senior Israeli delegation of representatives from defense and intelligence agencies also joined Sullivan for a meeting of the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group, a special bilateral group first established in 2021 to enable US-Israel collaborative efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

According to the readout, the meeting attendees reviewed Iran’s progress on its nuclear program “with significant concern” and vowed to “enhance coordination on measures to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and to further deter Iran’s hostile regional activities.”

The officials also discussed US efforts to add regional signatories to the Abraham Accords, the US-brokered normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, first signed in 2020, as well as other diplomatic frameworks such as the Negev Forum.

Israeli and US National Security Advisers Tzahi Hanegbi (right) and Jake Sullivan speak with their UAE and Bahrain counterparts via video from Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The meetings came days after far-right lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister, caused an international uproar by calling to “wipe out” the flashpoint West Bank town of Huwara, later walking back the comment, which put the top minister’s expected trip to the US this week in question.

Smotrich said the remark was a “slip of the tongue” made in a “storm of emotions” and came after extremist settlers rampaged through Huwara on February 26 and set homes and cars on fire, resulting in one Palestinian shot dead in unclear circumstances, and several badly hurt. The rampage came in response to the terror murder of Israeli brothers Hallel and Yagel Yaniv in a Palestinian shooting attack in the Nablus-area town hours earlier.

Smotrich is slated to visit Washington for an Israel Bonds conference on March 12-14, though he has faced boycott calls from a range of Jewish groups since his remarks.

The White House said Thursday that US government officials would not be meeting with Smotrich during his visit.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich presents the state budget at his Jerusalem ministry, February 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Officials say the White House has been holding discussions on whether or not to grant Smotrich a visa for an upcoming US trip — but indicate they are unlikely to ultimately block his visit.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides denied ever saying reported comments that “If I could, I’d throw him off the plane to Washington.” Nevertheless both Smotrich and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made remarks pushing back at the envoy.

In a series of tweets welcoming Smotrich’s clarification of his remarks, Netanyahu wrote that “none of us is free of mistakes, including foreign diplomats,” a thinly veiled swipe at Nides.

And Smotrich himself tweeted: “I’m not angry and I’m convinced that he didn’t intend to incite my killing by saying I should be thrown off the plane, just like I didn’t mean harming innocents when I said Huwara should be wiped out. People sometimes use strong expressions that they don’t mean literally, to convey a blunt message. It happens to everyone.”

Channel 12 quoted Nides on Friday as having expressed his desire to toss Smotrich off his plane to the US over the latter’s Huwara comments, though the ambassador vigorously denied having made such comments.

Left: Defense Minister Yoav Gallant during a ceremony at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 1, 2023; Right: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, November 16, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90; AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Later this week, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is slated to visit Israel, a trip which Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s office announced after the two spoke last week.

During that phone call, Austin urged Gallant to de-escalate tensions in the West Bank after a deadly anti-terror raid in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, though violence has hit a fever pitch over the past week since they spoke.

Austin’s visit will come after US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, was in Israel last week for talks with senior security officials on Iran and other security issues.

The two sides discussed cooperating “to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement, as well as “security developments.”

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