Netanyahu to AIPAC: Time for US and Israel to ‘close ranks’ on Iran

PM says allied nations are more closely aligned than ever on threat posed by Islamic Republic, as Dermer lands in Washington for meetings with Biden officials

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a video conversation with members of AIPAC from his office in Jerusalem on January 9, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a video conversation with members of AIPAC from his office in Jerusalem on January 9, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that it was time for Israel and the US to align their positions regarding the threat emanating from Iran, after years of disconnect on the issue.

“It’s time to close ranks between Israel and the United States – and others,” Netanyahu said in a video address to a gathering of AIPAC members in Washington.

The returning premier said the ongoing protests in Iran and the government’s crackdown on demonstrators shows “that this is a terrible, repressive, terrorist regime.”

“I look forward to discussing this issue with [US] President [Joe] Biden and his team. I think there is more of a meeting of the minds today than there has ever been,” Netanyahu added.

The Biden administration has indeed said in recent months that it is no longer focused on reviving the Iran nuclear deal, given Tehran’s radicalized positions on the matter, its cooperation with Russia in the latter’s invasion of Ukraine, and its crackdown on protesters at home. Israel vehemently opposed the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which traded sanctions relief for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday that “our priority right now is not the JCPOA,” and noted the numerous sanctions that the Biden administration announced against Iran over the past year.

However, he clarified that the US still believes that “ultimately, diplomacy is the best way” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — a line Jerusalem is less fond of, as it does not include its demand for a “credible military threat.”

Sullivan said the US is well aware of Netanyahu’s opposition to the nuclear agreement, recalling the prime minister’s 2015 speech to a joint session of Congress, which was organized behind the back of then-president Barak Obama and is thought to have severely damaged Israel’s ties with the Democratic party.

Sullivan said he would be discussing these issues with Netanyahu and others in his government when he visits Israel. An official familiar with the matter said those meetings will take place next week.

Ahead of Sullivan’s visit, Intelligence Minister Ron Dermer landed in Washington on Monday for meetings with White House and State Department officials.

Dermer, who is one of Netanyahu’s closest confidants and previously served as Israel’s ambassador to the US, has reportedly been tapped as the government’s point man on matters pertaining to the Biden administration. The Walla news site reported that he is expected to discuss Iran’s nuclear pursuit, Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians, and efforts to expand Israel’s integration in the Middle East.

Netanyahu, in his Monday address, told AIPAC members that he was working “to expand the circle of peace and explained that he is optimistic because Arab leaders have changed their views regarding Israel and now see us as partners, not enemies,” according to a statement from his office.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, September 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Roughly 1,000 people are attending the AIPAC Political Leadership Forum taking place on Monday and Tuesday. A spokesman said members would be “strategiz[ing] for the 2024 election cycle.” Leaders from both US parties are addressing the confab along with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Sullivan told NPR on Friday that “the first thing that I intend to convey [during the visit] is the fact that the United States is absolutely committed to Israel’s security, and that’s not going to change. President Biden has been a fundamental and stalwart supporter of the State of Israel for as long as he’s been in public service.”

“Second, we’re going to talk through the challenges and opportunities in the Middle East region. There are significant challenges, including the threat posed by Iran. On the other hand, there are real opportunities, including what we’ve seen in the deepening normalization between Israel and some of the Arab states,” he said. “We want to seize those opportunities for deepening integration between Israel and its neighbors.”

Sullivan added that the Biden administration will “continue to support the two-state solution, and we will oppose policies and practices that undermine the viability of the two-state solution or that cut hard against the historic status quo in Jerusalem. And I will be clear and direct on those points.”

An official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel last week that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken may follow up Sullivan’s visit with a trip of his own to Israel next month, which could lay the groundwork for a subsequent visit by Netanyahu to Washington.

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