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Analysis

Old friends: Rivlin leaves Washington, confident Biden is in Israel’s corner

President uses farewell visit to hold frank conversation on Iran, convey concerns over vacuum created by US withdrawal, request new precision missiles, and explain new gov’t makeup

Jacob Magid

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

President Reuven Rivlin and US President Joe Biden in the White House on June 29, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin and US President Joe Biden in the White House on June 29, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

WASHINGTON — While President Reuven Rivlin’s farewell visit to the US has been a mostly ceremonial affair, he managed to inject a good deal of substance into his Monday meeting at the White House, conveying critical messages on behalf of the new Israeli government regarding its views on the Iran nuclear file, the Palestinians and broader regional issues.

Rivlin’s Oval Office meeting with US President Joe Biden lasted over an hour, with the latter kicking it off by declaring in the presence of reporters that “Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch.”

Rivlin said afterward that he was very pleased with the declaration, but another Israeli official who spoke to The Times of Israel on the condition of anonymity said that preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon in the next four or eight years is only part of Jerusalem’s goal.

“We fear that by returning to the JCPOA [the Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], the US may be able to prevent Iran from reaching the bomb in the years ahead, but once the deal sunsets, Iran will immediately be able restart its efforts and will have hundreds of millions of dollars in extra funds provided to them by the sanctions relief that the agreement provides,” the official said.

For their part, White House officials pressed their Israeli counterparts during Monday’s closed-door meeting to present an alternative to the JCPOA that would prevent Iran from reaching nuclear capabilities, according to an Israeli diplomatic official.

Rivlin’s delegation responded by asking the Biden administration to clarify its frequently used talking point in favor of negotiating a “longer and stronger deal” with Iran after the sides return to the JCPOA, the official said. Jerusalem is skeptical that Tehran will be willing to return to the negotiation table once the JCPOA is renewed as it’ll have already garnered much of the sanctions relief it desperately seeks.

Without going into specifics, an American official told The Times of Israel Monday that the US has several forms of leverage at its disposal to coax Iran back to the table.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, second right, listens to head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi while visiting an exhibition of Iran’s new nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

The Israeli diplomatic official said the Biden administration appeared intent on blocking Iran’s path to a bomb, but still believes it can do so via the JCPOA, even if Israel thinks differently.

Moreover, the US would not go as far as to ease key sanctions against Iran before a return to the deal, the official speculated based on Monday’s meeting. The Israeli impression, per the official, was that the US recognized Jerusalem’s willingness to continue operating in the region in order to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, regardless of the status of JCPOA reentry talks.

Taking his cues from the new government, Rivlin assured Biden that Israel would seek to resolve any disagreements behind closed doors — a message Washington is sure to appreciate deeply after the rocky relationship between the two countries during the Obama presidency, when Biden was vice president.

Rivlin also stressed the importance of the White House discussing the matter with Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Biden appeared to have been attentive to the recommendation, with the White House announcing its intention to invite Bennett for a meeting with the US president in the near future. The diplomatic official said the meeting could take place within weeks.

Israel believes there is particular urgency in Washington for such a meeting, as the US is hoping to ink a return to the JPCOA before newly elected hardliner Ebrahim Raisi takes office in Iran on August 6, according to a source familiar with the matter. Jerusalem may not be able to convince the Biden administration to take a different route, but the White House still wants to keep Israel in the loop as much as possible, the source said.

Iran’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Kazem Gharib Abadi, Political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Abbas Araghchi, and Deputy Secretary General and Political Director of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Enrique Mora stand in front of the ‚Grand Hotel Vienna’ where where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, June 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

Nonetheless, Rivlin told reporters after Monday’s meeting that “things are still far from decided,” and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted on Sunday that a return to the JCPOA could be “very hard” if indirect talks between Iran and the US in Vienna continue to drag on.

The Israeli delegation also conveyed concern over the vacuum created as a result of successive American administrations’ efforts to withdraw troops and cease operations in the region, the diplomatic official said.

Rivlin provided the Biden administration with intelligence showing how the policies have led to a warming of ties between Iran and longtime US allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. One example shared was recent funding that Qatar provided to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the official said, noting that the information alarmed the American side in the meeting as well.

Can the new government make peace?

While it wasn’t the primary focus of the meeting, Biden officials made a point of raising the Palestinian issue as well. The Israeli diplomatic official declined to speak on background regarding this more sensitive part of the meeting, but an American source familiar with the matter confirmed that the Biden officials sought to gauge Rivlin’s perspective as to whether the new government would be willing and able to take on efforts to advance a two-state solution.

The same curiosity was shown by a bipartisan delegation of House members who met with Rivlin on Monday evening, quizzing the president on what they could expect from the new government. Rivlin urged the US lawmakers to judge the new government by its actions, rather than speculate.

Bennett is a long-time opponent of a two-state solution and has backed annexing nearly 60 percent of the West Bank known as Area C. But in the last month, he has clarified that his new government — with the Meretz party to the left and his Yamina to the right — would not take drastic steps in either direction regarding the Palestinians and that he would work to “shrink the conflict” where possible.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 20, 2021 (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

Rivlin told Biden the most notable aspect of the new government was its inclusion of an Arab Islamist party for the first time in the country’s history, the diplomatic official noted.

Biden “emphasized the importance of Israel taking steps to ensure calm, stability, and to support greater economic opportunities for the Palestinian people,” according to the White House readout.

Summarizing his impression of the American position on the matter, the diplomatic official said “they want the status quo,” adding that the US has repeatedly stressed its opposition to unilateral moves by either side, such as settlement building, home demolitions, evictions, incitement or payments to terrorists.

A US official said earlier this month that while Israelis and Palestinians might not be ready to enter high-level talks to reach a two-state solution, there were small steps that the sides could take in the interim to keep the prospect alive. However, there is recognition in the US that the new government needs time to coalesce before it should be tested on the matter.

Rivlin warned Biden that a two-state solution would not be possible without trust between the sides, the diplomatic official recalled, adding that the Israeli president shared recent polling conducted among the Palestinian public that showed the more moderate PA President Mahmoud Abbas enjoying the support of just 27 percent of respondents compared to Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh with 59%.

Instead, Rivlin urged Biden to pick up where his predecessor Donald Trump left off, expanding the group of Arab states that normalized relations with Israel through the Abraham Accords, saying Jerusalem would deeply appreciate such gestures.

UAE Ambassador to Israel Yousef al-Otaiba, Israeli Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan and President Reuven Rivlin meet at the Willard Hotel in Washington on June 28, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

The Biden administration has insisted that it also backs such an effort, but has clarified that such agreements should fold the Palestinians into the equation rather than isolate Ramallah.

Rivlin also used Monday’s meeting to ask the Biden administration for additional precision weapons against the backdrop of last month’s Gaza war, according to the diplomatic official. The Israeli president noted how Hamas fighters embed themselves within civilian populations and that advanced weaponry is needed to limit civilian casualties. Among the munitions raised were fighter helicopters such as the ones used to combat the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula, the official said.

Reliable Joe

Highlighting Biden’s willingness to listen to Israeli concerns, the diplomatic official said that the president several times waved off attempts by his staff to end Monday’s meeting after it went late, insisting that the sides were discussing important issues that warranted the extra time.

Rivlin arrived in Washington concerned over the stance of a portion of the Democratic Party against Israel, but left Monday convinced those elements had not succeeded in shifting Biden’s own position on the matter.

The two presidents have known each other since 1971, when Biden visited Israel as a young congressman and Rivlin took him on a tour of Jerusalem.

Ahead of Rivlin’s previous visit to the White House as president in 2015, Israeli security officials asked him to push then-president Barack Obama to move forward with the memorandum of understanding on US defense aid to Israel.

US Vice President Joe Biden (right) and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2016. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Given his decades-long friendship with Biden, Rivlin asked that he participate in the meeting with Obama, the diplomatic official recalled, against the wishes of some in the American administration. Biden ended up joining the meeting nonetheless and was responsible for convincing Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice to back the $38 billion MOU, according to the diplomatic official.

It was such memories that led Rivlin during Monday’s meeting to recall the words of former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, who said, “You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.”

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