Biden 'optimistic' on Saudi steps; PM backs 2-state solution

Diplomacy won’t stop Iran from going nuclear, Lapid tells Biden

‘The only way to stop them is a credible military threat,’ PM argues; US president publicly disagrees, saying dialogue is still the best way to counter Tehran

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and US President Joe Biden address a news conference in Jerusalem, Thursday, July 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and US President Joe Biden address a news conference in Jerusalem, Thursday, July 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In their joint comments Thursday on Iran’s nuclear program, visiting US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid expressed a public disagreement over the best way to tackle the threat, with Lapid telling the American leader that “words will not stop them, Mr. President,” and urging him to “put a credible military threat on the table.”

The two leader’s interaction at the Jerusalem press conference was warm (full text here), and Lapid made clear that there was no daylight between the two countries regarding the ultimate goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

But the two did air their differences before the cameras as to the best way to handle Tehran.

“Words will not stop them, Mr. President,” said Lapid. “Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force. The only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table.”

“It should not be a bluff, but the real thing,” Lapid continued. “The Iranian regime must know that if they continue to deceive the world, they will pay a heavy price.”

Speaking after Lapid, Biden said, “I continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve this outcome.” He added that there is “an ironclad commitment from the United States of America to Israel’s security.”

US President Joe Biden (L) and Prime Minister Yair Lapid, sign a security pledge in Jerusalem, on July 14, 2022. (Mandel NGAN / AFP)

Minutes before, the two leaders signed a joint strategic declaration, in which the US vowed to use “all elements in its national power” to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“The United States stresses that integral to this pledge is the commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome,” read the statement, officially known as the Jerusalem US-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration.

According to a report by Channel 12 news Thursday evening, Israeli officials have failed to convince US leaders to take a tougher approach toward Iran and increase the pressure on it at this time.

Citing unnamed security sources, the report said this has created frustration in Jerusalem, as well as resolve to accelerate Israel’s own preparations to act if needed.

The network also said that in the past two days, the security establishment has identified “movements” by Iranians and Iranian affiliates in the Middle East, who they suspect may be preparing “provocations” against Israeli or American interests in the region in response to Biden’s visit, in an attempt to raise the pressure on the US administration.

Responding to a question on the status of efforts to convince Saudi Arabia to allow more Israeli flights to use its airspace, Lapid said there would be “a finalization of the issues” when the president flies on Friday to Saudi Arabia, but that he would allow Biden to answer the question. The president added, “I’m optimistic.”

Last week a Middle East diplomat told The Times of Israel that Riyadh will approve overflights along with direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims, in an agreement being brokered by the Biden administration that would see Egypt transfer control of a pair of Red Sea islands to the Gulf kingdom.

This photo taken on January 14, 2014, through the window of an airplane, shows the Red Sea’s Tiran (foreground) and the Sanafir (background) islands in the Strait of Tiran between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia. (Stringer/AFP)

The islands were transferred from Israel to Egypt in their 1979 peace agreement and Cairo agreed to grant Jerusalem continued freedom of navigation there. As such, Israel’s buy-in is required for the island transfer to go through and the US is looking to coax Saudi Arabia to take steps toward normalization with the Jewish state as part of the agreement.

The Mideast diplomat said the US is hoping to finalize the deal by the time Biden arrives in Saudi Arabia, though the talks have faced complications since Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have formal ties and Riyadh has been hesitant to put certain details in writing.

Biden also pressed for a peace agreement with the Palestinians in his prepared remarks.

“Israel must remain an independent, democratic Jewish state,” he said. “The best way to achieve that remains a two-state solution.”

Biden called for a solution that sees “two people, both of whom have deep and ancient roots in this land, living side by side in peace and security. Both states fully respecting the equal rights of their citizens. Both people enjoying equal measures of freedom.”

President Joe Biden speaks with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, left, after arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, Wednesday, July 13, 2022, in Tel Aviv. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid is right. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Anything that takes the sides further from that is “detrimental to the long-term security of Israel,” said Biden.

While Lapid himself supports the framework, he heads a caretaker government that includes right-wing parties opposed to Palestinian statehood. Accordingly, he has avoided voicing his support for two states since taking office.

But during the Q&A session after their prepared remarks, he was pressed for his opinion on the matter. In contrast to predecessors Naftali Bennett and Benjamin Netanyahu, Lapid responded that he still does support the two-state solution — “A two-state solution is a guarantee for a strong, democratic State of Israel with a Jewish majority,” he said. But he avoided answering a question as to whether he would advance the initiative if he continues in the post after the November election.

While support for two states was not an issue reaffirmed by both parties in the Jerusalem Declaration, the US was able to convince Israel to express its commitment to strengthening the economy and quality of life for Palestinians.

Contrary to his predecessors, Biden is seen to have largely deprioritized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on his foreign policy agenda due to a belief that the parties are not ready for high-stakes peace talks.

On Wednesday, Biden expressed his support for a two-state solution in his speech upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport at the start of his four-day trip. However, he added, “I know it’s not [feasible] in the near term.”

US President Joe Biden (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Collage/AP)

At the Thursday press conference, Lapid also asked Biden to send a message to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Iraq: “Our hand is outstretched for peace. We are ready to share our technology and experience, ready for our people to meet and learn about one another, ready for our scientists to collaborate and our businesses to cooperate.”

“We send with you, to all the nations of the region, including of course the Palestinians, a message of peace.”

Both men made sure to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, an issue on which Israel has declined to follow the US lead in sanctioning Moscow.

Lapid said “Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine” is a reminder that “in order to protect freedom, sometimes force must be used.”

Rescuers at the scene of building damaged by shelling, in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, July 14, 2022. (Ukrainian Emergency Service via AP)

Biden, who has been a leader in the West’s efforts to punish Vladimir Putin, said that Russia’s invasion “must be a strategic failure… and the free world must sustain our resolve to help Ukraine defend its democracy.”

“The US will continue to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,” he pledged.

In the Jerusalem Declaration, Biden and Lapid found common language on the Russia-Ukraine war: “The United States and Israel reiterate their concerns regarding the ongoing attacks against Ukraine, their commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and affirmed the importance of continued humanitarian assistance to the people of Ukraine.”

In response to a question, Biden said his administration was working hard with Israel to lower the rejection rate for US visa applications submitted by Israelis, which is critical for the Jewish state’s acceptance into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

“We are working very, very, very hard on [this]… and it is my hope and expectation that in the next several months [we’ll have] it worked out,” Biden said.

US President Joe Biden gives a joint press conference with Prime Minister Yair Lapid, in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

But even if the rejection rate is kept below the 3.5% threshold, there are several more significant hurdles that Israel still has to overcome, including ensuring reciprocal freedom of movement for Palestinian Americans at all Israeli crossings. Similarly critical is the passing of legislation to give the US limited access to criminal records and traveler information, which the opposition managed to block before the Knesset dissolved last month. If not passed by the fall, Israel will have to wait until next year to reapply for the VWP.

While it is still possible to pass legislation during a recess, it is far more difficult to do so.

Lapid finished by thanking Biden for America’s friendship and commitment to Israel, calling it “one of the cornerstones of Israel’s national security.”

“Throughout all your years in public service, you were one of the chief architects of this relationship, for that you have the everlasting gratitude of the people of Zion.”

The Jerusalem Declaration Biden and Lapid signed contains a US commitment to fully implement the terms of 2016’s historic $38 billion memorandum of understanding, and a recognition that a follow-on MOU should reflect new threats and circumstances.

The MOU was signed in 2016 under the Obama administration when Biden was vice president. It promised Israel $38 billion in defense aid over the following decade and went into effect in 2018.

After the press conference, Biden headed back to his hotel. He is slated to head to the President’s Residence later in the afternoon, where he will meet with Opposition Leader Netanyahu and be given a Presidential Medal of Honor by President Isaac Herzog.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report. 

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