Lapid headed to Washington, while Netanyahu still awaits date for Biden meeting

Opposition leader slated to fly to the US next week as he, like many others, takes aim at current government’s diplomatic efforts

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accompanied by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, left, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyanin, right, appear at a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, October 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accompanied by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, left, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyanin, right, appear at a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, October 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid will travel to Washington next week for high-level meetings with White House and State Department officials, his office told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

The meetings will take place against the backdrop of evident tension between US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has yet to be invited to the the White House since returning to office late last year.

Lapid’s office declined to comment on whether he would be meeting Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris.

Netanyahu received an invitation from Biden to meet in the US during a recent phone call, but it remains unclear whether the two will meet at the White House. Biden could well meet the prime minister on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in mid-September, which would allow the president to get the meeting out of the way in an election season without having to roll out the red carpet in Washington.

A meeting at the UN would be one of many the US president will hold that week and would be lower profile than the Oval Office photo op that the premier likely envisions as he seeks to recover his diplomatic bona fides, which have taken a hit due to his government’s hardline policies.

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said earlier this month that he anticipates “the president will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu sometime in the latter part of this year in the fall, and [that] it’ll be somewhere in the United States.”

US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in the Oval Office at the White House on July 18, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/AFP)

Netanyahu returned to office on December 29, and it took seven months for Biden to even agree to a meeting. In late March, the president said one would not take place in the “near term” amid Washington’s disapproval of the government’s judicial overhaul.

Netanyahu has reportedly instructed all cabinet ministers to avoid traveling to the United States, and to avoid meeting US government officials if they do, until he is invited to the White House.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, is expected to meet senior US officials this week during his ongoing visit to New York. He is slated to meet Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, and Middle East envoy Brett McGurk, the Ynet news site reported.

The meetings were arranged with Netanyahu’s approval, according to the report.

Gallant met with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at UN headquarters on Monday.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) meets with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, at the UN headquarters in New York, August 29, 2023. (United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres)

For his part, Lapid has not been shy about pursuing diplomatic meetings in places where the Netanyahu government is struggling to reach.

Earlier this month, Lapid met with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed in Italy for three hours. According to Lapid’s office, the two discussed bilateral ties and advancing joint projects.

No senior Emirati officials have been in Israel since Netanyahu’s government came to power in late December.

Netanyahu was due to visit the UAE shortly after returning to office as his first state visit, but the trip was canceled after National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount holy site in Jerusalem, which Abu Dhabi denounced as a “storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard.”

In May, Netanyahu was finally invited to visit the UAE, after months of delays in securing his first official trip to the Gulf country as premier. The invitation was not for a state visit, however, but was instead for the COP28 UN climate conference, which will be attended by dozens of world leaders.

Opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid (R) meets with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed in Italy, August 8, 2023. (Courtesy: Yair Lapid’s office)

Lapid has been a vocal critic of this government’s diplomatic efforts. On Monday, he blasted his successor as foreign minister, Eli Cohen, for going public with his meeting with his Libyan counterpart last week.

“Countries are looking at the irresponsible leak this morning of the Israeli and Libyan foreign ministers and asking themselves: Is this a country that it’s possible to manage foreign relations with? Is it a country that can be trusted?” he said in a statement.

Lapid, who served as foreign minister and then prime minister in the previous government, said that keeping such meetings discreet had in the past helped build trust with countries that had no ties with Israel but later went on to establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

“This is what happens when Eli Cohen, a man without any background in the field, is appointed foreign minister,” he said. “The incident with the Libyan foreign minister was amateurish, irresponsible and a grave failure of judgment.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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