Meeting with visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday voiced Israel’s concerns over the possibility of Washington removing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its list of terror groups as it rejoins the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.
During a joint press conference with the top American diplomat at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Bennett thanked the US for its support and commitment to Israel and its security.
The premier also thanked Blinken for his efforts “to further and expand” the Abraham Accords.
“The Middle East is changing and it’s changing for the better,” Bennett said. “We’re working together to overcome the forces of darkness and build a new future.”
His comments came hours before Blinken was set to join his counterparts from Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt at a special summit in the Negev, which Bennett hailed as “historic.”
Speaking after Bennett, Blinken touted the Biden administration’s “ironclad commitment” to Israel’s security and noted the recent congressional approval of funds for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.
On the issue of Iran, Bennett referred to Houthi attacks in Saudi Arabia last week, which he called “horrific,” adding that he was concerned over the possible removal of the IRGC from the US Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list as part of a revived nuclear deal with Tehran.
“I hope the US will hear concerned voices in the region, from Israel and others, on this issue,” he said.
Tehran has said that taking the IRGC off a US terror list is a condition for restoring the deal.
Speaking in Doha, the Qatari capital, on Sunday, US envoy Robert Malley said “the IRGC will remain sanctioned under US law.”
Blinken said that “there is no daylight” between the US and Israel on the efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, as well as countering its threats to the region.
He added that the US will maintain that stance regardless of whether a new Iran nuclear deal is reached.
“Deal or no deal, we will continue to work together and with other partners to counter Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region,” he said.
Meeting earlier with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Blinken said the US and Israel “see eye to eye” on Iran despite disagreements on the nuclear deal.
Asked specifically at his press conference with Lapid whether the IRGC is a foreign terrorist organization, Blinken gave a circumspect answer. The IRGC, he said, “is probably the most designated organization in one way or another in the world among organizations that we designate, including the foreign terrorist organization designation.”
Bennett also protested the notion of the IRGC being delisted during a cabinet meeting earlier Sunday.
“The idea that this organization will be removed from the terrorist list, from the FTO, is very disturbing and not just to us,” he said. “We are still hoping and working toward preventing this from happening.”
Rising tensions with the Palestinians
Bennett said at the press conference with Blinken that Israel was working “to improve the lives” of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
He referred to the decision made on Sunday to raise the number of permits for Gazans to work in Israel to 20,000, as well as a planned investment of NIS 40 million ($12.4 million) in improving the crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
“While we can’t solve everything, we can improve the lives of people on the ground… Even if you can’t solve everything, it doesn’t mean you can’t do anything,” he said.
Bennett was slammed by settler leaders and right-wing MKs for using the term “West Bank” during the press conference, rather than the area’s biblical name, “Judea and Samaria.”
During the press conference, Blinken reiterated US support for a two-state solution and welcomed meetings between Israeli ministers and top Palestinian Authority officials, “including Defense Minister Benny Gantz.”
According to reports on Saturday, Bennett has barred Gantz from attending a meeting in Ramallah this week between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Blinken was set to sit down with the Palestinian leader in Ramallah after his meeting with Bennett.
Blinken said he and Bennett discussed strategies to ensure calm this year during the Ramadan, Easter and Passover holidays, which overlap.
He stressed the need to “prevent actions on all sides that could raise tensions, including settlement expansion.”
“It’s a message that I’ll be underscoring in all of my meetings on this trip,” he said.
Concerning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Bennett said Israel is committed to doing everything “to stop the bloodshed” and stressed Israeli support for the Ukrainian people. He also noted Israel is providing humanitarian aid.
“I’m proud of what Israel is doing,” he said
Bennett said Israel’s diplomatic efforts to end the war “are in coordination” with the US and other countries.
Blinken hailed Israel’s “important diplomatic efforts” to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv, and praised Israeli humanitarian support such as the establishment of a field hospital in western Ukraine.