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Lapid to Harris in DC: Even when we have differences, we share a common goal

FM meets with VP, NSA, and Congressional leaders; says Iran is his visit’s main focus, but lso highlights importance of improving Palestinian lives, boosting bipartisan support

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with US Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington on October 12, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with US Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington on October 12, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told US Vice President Kamala Harris that shared values and interests allow their two countries to overcome any differences between them, as he capped off the first day of meetings with senior US officials in Washington on Tuesday.

“Even when we have differences, I know that our goal is common, which is to see Israel strong, secure, and thriving,” Lapid told Harris at the opening of their subsequently closed-door meeting with their aides at the vice president’s office. Earlier in the day, Lapid met with US President Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan along with a group of senior bipartisan lawmakers led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The new administrations in both Jerusalem and Washington see eye to eye on many issues, but Israel opposes US efforts to return to the Iran nuclear deal, and US President Joe Biden is a proponent of a two-state solution, which Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opposes.

However, Bennett has emphasized a “new spirit of goodwill” with which he is approaching ties to the US, after Washington and Jerusalem sparred frequently the last time a Democratic president was in office.

Biden officials have also avoided steps that might destabilize Bennett’s nascent, politically diverse coalition, recognizing that its fall could well bring about the return of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has spoken out regularly against the policies of the new US government.

At the start of his meeting with Harris, Lapid lauded the vice president as “one of the best friends Israel has in Washington.” Harris drew the concern of some mainstream pro-Israel groups earlier this month when she did not rebut a college student who accused Israel of ethnic cleansing during an event to promote voting rights.

Harris said the sit-down was an opportunity “to yet again reaffirm the strength and the endurance of the relationship between the US and Israel, a relationship that is unwavering, based on shared values, a shared history and a shared concern of the mutual safety and security fo the people of our two countries.”

“The dialogue between us is always based on facts,” Lapid said. “We met in Israel when you came to see with your own eyes the difficulties and understand the complexities. You know us, we know you, and this explains the strength of our bond.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with US Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington on October 12, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

The Palestinians

Lapid appeared to recognize the importance with which the Biden administration views the Palestinian issue, including it at the top of his remarks. “We also believe that the Palestinians are entitled to quality of life, an economy, education, and hope,” he said, without elaborating.

Bennett’s new government has taken a number of steps vis-a-vis the Palestinians, approving more permits for workers in Israel and in West Bank settlements, authorizing permits for building in the West Bank’s Area C, where construction for non-Israelis has long been barred, and recently authorizing IDs for 442 undocumented Palestinians.

However, Bennett has stated that he will not meet with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, let alone enter political negotiations with him, and his government is moving forward with plans to approve thousands of new units for construction in West Bank settlements while insisting that it will continue expanding Israel’s presence beyond the Green Line at the same pace as previous coalitions led by Netanyahu.

Harris told Lapid that the two would discuss “peace, security and prosperity for the Palestinians as well as Israelis” in their meeting.

In Lapid’s meeting with Sullivan, the sides discussed the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip in particular, which is reeling after the 11-day war the enclave-ruling Hamas fought against Israel in May. Hundreds of buildings were demolished, including schools, hospitals and clinics in Israeli air raids responding to the firing of roughly 4,500 rockets by Gaza terror groups, which operate from within civilian populations.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Washington on October 12, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

According to the Foreign Ministry readout, Lapid raised his “Economy for Security” plan for the Gaza Strip, which offers significant Israeli assistance in reconstruction projects for the enclave in exchange for tight international oversight of Hamas.

“Sullivan emphasized the importance of practical steps to improve the lives of the Palestinians,” the White House said.

In addition, they discussed in their meeting the plan for the Gaza Strip – “Economy for Security” – presented by Minister Lapid.

Abraham Accords

The vice president said the sides would also discuss the Abraham Accords, adding that she and Biden support strengthening and expanding normalization agreements between Israel and its Arab and Muslim neighbors. The topic was also discussed during Lapid’s meeting with Sullivan, according to the White House readout.

The Biden administration has spoken in favor of the Abraham Accords since entering office but has not prioritized the issue as much as former president Donald Trump, who had a special envoy tasked with advancing the process and was willing to offer prospective countries significant improvements to their bilateral ties with the US if they agreed to normalize relations with Israel.

Nonetheless, Biden officials have spoken of their intention to bring the agreement of intent signed between Israel and Sudan to normalize relations “over the finish line.” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted an event marking the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords last month with the foreign ministers of Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco.

Blinken will be hosting a meeting with Lapid and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed in Washington on Wednesday, where the establishment of trilateral working groups on religious coexistence along with water and energy issues will be announced, a senior State Department official said Tuesday in a briefing with reporters.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid walks with his aidess in Washington on October 12, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Iran

Included in Harris’s opening remarks was a brief reference to the “shared concern as it relates to Iran.”

Lapid, for his part, referred to Tehran’s nuclear program as “the center of my visit.”

He told both Sullivan and Congressional leaders during their meetings earlier Tuesday that “Iran is becoming a nuclear threshold state” and emphasized to Sullivan the “need for an alternative plan” to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was brokered under former president Barack Obama in 2015 and vacated by Trump in 2018.

The US has yet to publicly entertain alternative options to the JCPOA in detail, insisting that it is still pursuing the diplomatic path to curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Biden told Bennett in August that if that effort fails, the US will be prepared to consider other options.

“Sullivan reaffirmed President Biden’s commitment to ensuring that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon,” according to a readout of his meeting with Lapid published by the White House.

“The officials agreed that the United States and Israel will continue to consult closely on Iran and other critical matters impacting the security and stability of the region,” the statement added.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Washington on October 12, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Bipartisan support

During his meeting with Harris, Lapid said another central goal of his visit in the US was to strengthen bipartisan support for Israel, which has taken a hit in recent years in an increasingly polarized Washington.

Republicans led by Trump have aligned more closely with Netanyahu and the Israeli right, while Democrats are being increasingly swayed by a small minority of progressives significantly more sympathetic with the Palestinian cause.

In many ways though, support for Israel remains as strong as ever, with legislation to grant an additional $1 billion in funding for the Iron Dome missile defense program passing the House in a vote of 420 to 9 with two lawmakers abstaining.

Lapid said he would specifically seek to strengthen support for Israel among younger Americans, who according to polls are less aligned with the Jewish state than their elders.

“This generation is not only preoccupied with wars and conflicts, but also with the climate crisis, the global immigration crisis, and questions of identity,” he told Harris.

In remarks to the press ahead of her meeting with Lapid, Pelosi said that “Israel has always been bipartisan in the Congress of the United States, and it continues to be so.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with a Congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Washington on October 12, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Lapid thanked the speaker for her efforts to pass the Iron Dome legislation. The bill still needs to be approved by the Senate and that is expected to happen, though the effort has been temporarily stalled by Republican Rand Paul, a libertarian who opposes US foreign aid.

“For many of us, [support for Israel] is in our DNA. For all of us, it’s at least bipartisan. And it’s with great pride that I welcome Foreign Minister Lapid to the Capitol once again,” Pelosi said.

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