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In DC, new national security adviser discusses Iran threat with US counterpart

Eyal Hulata and Jake Sullivan meet for first time, also discuss goodwill steps to Palestinians and PM’s upcoming trip to Washington, the White House says

Eyal Hulata in an undated photograph. (courtesy)
Eyal Hulata in an undated photograph. (courtesy)

Israel’s new National Security Council chairman Eyal Hulata met with White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Monday in Washington, in talks focused on Iran and the Palestinians.

The meeting marked the first in-person meetings between aides to the two countries’ new leaders, as contacts have so far been held virtually. The talks were held ahead of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s upcoming visit to Washington.

“Mr. Sullivan and Dr. Hulata discussed the strategic challenges in the region, including the threat posed by Iran, and agreed to consult closely on these issues,” according to a US readout of the meeting.

The discussion came days after an attack on an Israeli-operated oil tanker off the coast of Oman, which Israel, the US, and UK have blamed on Iran. Two people, a British national and Romanian national, were killed in the drone strike. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has vowed there would be a “collective response” to Iran.

“They also exchanged views about the opportunities in the region, including advancing the normalization of relations between Israel and countries in the Arab and Muslim world and recent positive developments in Israel’s relationship with Jordan,” the statement said.

“Mr. Sullivan also stressed the importance of pursuing positive steps related to the Palestinians, which are critical to peace, security and prosperity.”

National security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Ahead of Bennett’s Washington trip, Israel’s Housing Ministry is seeking to advance a controversial housing project in East Jerusalem, which is expected to anger the Palestinians. The ministry placed a 9,000-housing-unit plan to expand the Atarot neighborhood on the agenda for a December meeting of the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, the Walla news site reported Monday. The new neighborhood would be located at the site of the Atarot Airport, which has been inoperative since the eruption of the Second Intifada in 2000.

An Israeli official confirmed to The Times of Israel that the plan had indeed been placed on the docket, but said that the Prime Minister’s Office had not been notified in advance of the move.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and US President Joe Biden. (composite image: AP, Flash90)

Following a diplomatic rift with the Obama administration in 2010 when the Housing Ministry — without then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s knowledge — advanced a different controversial project in East Jerusalem while then-US vice president Joe Biden was in Israel for a visit, the Netanyahu government sought to create a mechanism by which the Prime Minister’s Office would be kept in the loop regarding the approval of such diplomatically sensitive housing projects in East Jerusalem.

According to the White House, Sullivan and Hulata also “discussed the upcoming visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Bennett, and Mr. Sullivan conveyed that President Biden looks forward to warmly welcoming Prime Minister Bennett to the White House soon.”

Last month US President Joe Biden extended an invitation for Bennett to visit the White House. The offer was relayed to then-president Reuven Rivlin during a visit, with the latter saying Biden wanted his first meeting with Bennett to take place “as soon as possible.” But the premier will have a hard time leaving the country until the Knesset begins its summer recess on August 8, given the coalition’s razor-thin 61-59 majority in parliament. Flying in August would complicate meetings on Capitol Hill though, as the US Congress will also be in recess that month.

An official from Bennett’s Yamina party said the premier also wants Israel’s next ambassador to the US to already be stationed in Washington by the time he arrives, though the PMO is still fielding candidates for the position. In the meantime, Gilad Erdan has stayed on as envoy. Erdan is to remain in the US to continue serving in his second post as ambassador to the UN.

If he is unable to make it to Washington in August and the visit is delayed to September, Bennett may try to expand his itinerary to include a stop in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly, the Yamina official said, acknowledging that the prime minister will also have to work around a tight White House schedule.

Last month, an Israeli official confirmed that the Biden administration agreed to hold off on plans to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem for Palestinians until after the new Israeli government has passed a budget in early November.

The US is wary of moves that might destabilize Bennett’s nascent coalition and bring about the return of former prime minister Netanyahu, the official said anonymously.

This Monday, March 4, 2019 photo shows the United States consulate building in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The consulate, which mainly served the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, was officially shut down in 2019 by former US president Donald Trump as part of the administration’s transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem. Much of the staff at the historic mission on Agron Street have continued their same jobs at the same location, though under a newly named Palestinian Affairs Unit formed under the larger umbrella of US relations to Israel, considered a de facto downgrading of ties that Biden is keen to reverse.

Bennett’s government asked for the delay, explaining that opposition members would use the reopening of a de facto mission to the Palestinians in Jerusalem to drive a wedge into the still-green coalition, the official said.

The new government, made up of an array of parties from across the political spectrum, still needs to agree on passing a budget before it can be considered stable enough to withstand such criticisms from the opposition. It has until November 4, otherwise elections will be called. On Monday, the budget was approved by the cabinet. It still requires three Knesset votes to pass.

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