Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held his first sit-down with US President Joe Biden in the White House on Friday. The meeting focused on Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other regional matters. It was also seen as important to establishing a personal rapport between the two leaders.
The meeting came as the US deals with Thursday’s deadly bombing at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed scores of people and at least 13 US soldiers. Some of the conversation focused on those events as well.
Below is a transcript of Biden and Bennett’s statements to the press in the Oval Office after their 50-minute meeting, with minor edits for readability and clarity.
President Biden: Welcome folks. I like to have the prime minister here. We’re going to talk about our relationship, which is the strongest it can be, but I know you’re going to want to know what’s happened this morning in terms of my meetings with my national security team [on Afghanistan].
Let me begin by once again acknowledging the bravery and the sacrifice that our military makes every single day, and the loss of those Americans and Marines and personnel is tragic, as I said yesterday. The prime minister and I talked about it slightly, and he’s a military man who went to war and lost a friend. You know, losing a son or daughter, husband, wife is like being sucked into a big black hole in the middle of your chest and you don’t think there’s any way out. So my heart goes out, our hearts go out to all those who we’ve lost.
The mission being performed is dangerous and is now coming with a significant loss of American personnel. But it’s a worthy mission because they continue to evacuate folks out of that region, out of the airport, [they’ve] evacuated more than 12,000 additional people out of the airport in the last 24 hours. I met with my commanders this morning, first thing in the morning, and got a detailed briefing about yesterday’s attacks and the measures they’re taking to protect our forces and complete the mission. And we will complete the mission.
I’m not going to take any questions — because of the Prime Minister being here — on Afghanistan now, but I’ll be available at another time.
But it’s great that the prime minister is here. We have become close friends. He’s ridden the Amtrak train a lot from New York down to Wilmington, Delaware… back in the days when he was in private practice. But he heads and leads the most diverse government in Israeli history. And we’ve got a big agenda today, starting with COVID, which we’ve been talking about, and both our successful vaccination programs, and we’ve talked a little bit and we’re going to continue to talk about the issue of booster shots. And you started your program early and you’re having great results, and we’re going to start mid-September. But we’re considering the advice you’ve given that we should start earlier, and this is promising. The booster program is going to start here in September the 20th, pending approval of the FDA and the CDC committee of outside experts. And the question raised is, should it be shorter than eight months [before a booster shot]. Should it be as long as five months? And that’s being discussed. I spoke with Dr. Fauci this morning about that.
We’re also going to discuss [the] unwavering, unwavering commitment that we have in the United States to Israel’s security. And I fully, fully, fully support replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome system. And we also are going to discuss the threat from Iran and our commitment to ensure Iran never develops a nuclear weapon. But we’re putting diplomacy first and seeing where that takes us. But if diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options.
We’ll support Israel’s developing deeper ties as well with the Arab and Muslim neighbors and globally. That’s a trend that I think should be encouraged, not discouraged. And we’re going to do all we can to be of value [to it]. We also are going to discuss ways to advance peace and security and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians. And we’re also going to direct our teams to work toward Israel fulfilling the requirements of the visa waiver program to get that done.
So, Mr. Prime Minister, I want to thank you again for coming. The US will always be there for Israel. It’s an unshakeable partnership between our two nations. And I’ve known every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir, gotten to know them fairly well, and I look forward to us establishing a strong personal relationship. So welcome.
Prime Minister Bennett: Thank you, Mr. President. First of all, on behalf of the Israeli people, I want to extend our condolences and deep sadness for the loss of American lives in Kabul. American service members lost their lives while on a mission to save other people’s lives. And that’s the very definition of courage and sacrifice. May they rest in peace. Especially on this day, I want to be crystal clear. Israel always stands together with the United States of America unequivocally.
I also want to thank you for your warm words now and in our private meeting, which attest to your support of the State of Israel. But that’s not new. It’s been decades and you always stood up for us, especially during tough times, like a few months ago, when thousands of rockets were being shot on Israeli towns and cities, and that’s when friendship is really tested. We trust in your support, Mr. President, and Israel knows that we have no better or more reliable ally in the world than the United States of America.
I come here from Jerusalem our eternal capital, and I bring with me a new spirit, a spirit of goodwill, a spirit of hope, a spirit of decency and honesty, a spirit of unity and bipartisanship of folks, who as you suggested harbor very different political opinions, even opposing. Yet we all share the deep passion to work together to build a better future for Israel. And that’s what Israel is about. We’re out to be good, to do good.
But in our region, doing good is not enough. Israel has to be strong in order to do good. And we cannot lose sight for even one moment that we’re in the toughest neighborhood in the world. We’ve got ISIS on our southern border, Hezbollah on our northern border, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Iranian militias that surround us. And all of them want to kill us, kill Israelis. They all want to annihilate the Jewish state. And that’s why Israel always has to be overwhelmingly stronger than any of our enemies. And indeed, of all our enemies combined. That’s why I want to thank you, Mr. President, for helping yet again to fortify Israel’s strategic advantage.
Obviously, the main issue we’re going to be talking about today here is Iran’s race to a nuclear weapon. We talked about it inside the room, and I was happy to hear your clear words that Iran will never be able to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that you emphasize that they’ll try the diplomatic route but there’s other options if that doesn’t work out.
So, you know, these very days illustrate what the world would look like if a radical Islamic regime acquired a nuclear weapon. That marriage would be a nuclear nightmare for the entire world. Iran is the world’s number one exporter of terror, instability and human rights violations. And as we sit here right now, the Iranians are spinning their centrifuges in Natanz and Fordo. We’ve got to stop it. And we both agreed.
So we’ve developed a comprehensive strategy that we’re going to be talking about with two goals: The first goal is to stop Iran on its regional aggression and start rolling it back into the box, and the second is to permanently keep Iran away from ever being able to break out to a nuclear weapon.
As I told you, Mr. President, Israel never [has] and never will ask America to send troops to defend ourselves. That’s our job. We will never outsource our security. It’s our responsibility to take care of our fate. But we do thank you for the tools and the back you’ve been giving us and you’re giving us.
You said we’re also going to be talking about COVID and the Delta variant, which is wreaking havoc across the world. You were the first to call the pandemic ‘the pandemic of the unvaccinated,’ and that could not be more true. Just about a month ago I took a very tough decision, a policy decision that Israel would pioneer the booster shot, the third shot. I can report to you, Mr. President, to everyone, that we’ve reached almost three million Israelis that have received the booster shot, and the bottom line is it’s safe and it works. The good news, finally, is that the tide is turning in Israel.
And one last word, Mr. President. I’ll take this off for this part if I may (removes mask). You’re a man of faith, as am I. In synagogues across the world we read a biblical portion beyond the parasha, it’s called haftarah. And tomorrow, we’re going to be reading words of the prophet Isaiah, Yeshayahu. In Hebrew, the words are (said in Hebrew):
Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the hip.
What this means… I can say anything now, right? What this means is the sons and daughters of the Jewish people are going to come back to our land, are going to nurse our ancient land and rebuild it. And this ancient Jewish prophecy is today’s Israel reality. And it’s a miracle that you’ve been so central and so part of it for so many years.
So, Mr. President, today you and I — and you’ve been so generous with your time in these difficult days — you and I are going to write yet another chapter in the beautiful story of the friendship between our two nations, the United States of America, and the Jewish and democratic state of Israel. Both of us who seek to do good and need to be strong, both of us who are a lighthouse in a very, very stormy world. Thank you, Mr. President, I look forward to working with you now and for many years forward. Thank you.
Biden: Well, thank you. And you give me credit, much of which should go to Barack Obama for making sure that we committed to the qualitative edge you would have relative to your friends in the region. So he’s the one who deserves the credit.
Bennett: Thank him as well.
Biden: Thank you very much folks.