Rivlin prepares to talk substance at largely ceremonial Biden meeting

President set to focus on Gaza and Iran, with Israelis understanding that although US will probably return to nuclear deal, they may be able to influence 2nd phase of negotiations

President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, during the Knesset elections, March 23, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, during the Knesset elections, March 23, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — President Reuven Rivlin will meet with US President Joe Biden on Monday in the first formal meeting between a senior Israeli official and the American commander-in-chief since he entered the White House in January.

The largely ceremonial meeting, which will take place in the Oval Office of the White House, is scheduled for around 11 p.m. Israel time, 4 p.m EST — after prime time in Israel, although upon its conclusion Rivlin will brief the press.

Rivlin’s seven-year term as president is due to end on July 7, and the White House said the visit “will honor the dedication he has shown to strengthening the friendship between the two countries over the course of many years.” But beyond rituals and handshakes, Rivlin intends to raise a range of substantive issues.

Before taking off from Ben Gurion International Airport, Rivlin told reporters, “I am departing, for the last time as president and on behalf of the State of Israel, on a farewell visit to Israel’s closest ally and friend in the world — the United States of America.”

“On my visit I will meet President Joe Biden, a true friend of the State of Israel for many years, and I will thank him for his genuine concern for Israel’s security and its citizens,” he said.

Prior to his trip, Rivlin held meetings with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to coordinate the message he will bring from the leaders of Israel’s new government to Washington.

During talks at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, Rivlin and Bennett discussed the positions to be presented to Biden regarding key regional issues such as Iran and Israel’s objection to a potential US return to the 2015 nuclear deal, as well as the Gaza Strip and Syria.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) and President Reuven Rivlin meet at the President’s House, June 23, 2021. (President’s House)

Following last month’s 11-day conflict between Israel and the Gaza-based Hamas terror group, Rivlin and Biden are expected to discuss the future of the enclave and efforts to rebuild its civilian infrastructure.

According to the President’s Office, Rivlin will note the Israeli demand that any long-term truce deal include the return to Israel of the bodies of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, both killed in action during the 2014 Gaza war, and civilians Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who were captured after they entered Gaza of their own accord and whose families say they suffer from mental illnesses.

Rivlin will also talk to Biden about ongoing negotiations toward a US return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

Like the previous government, the new one led by Bennett and Lapid is strongly opposed to the Biden administration’s efforts to re-enter the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

However, both Bennett and Lapid have stressed that whatever their disagreements with the US, they plan to address them behind closed doors, rather than through public skirmishes the way former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu did during the Obama administration.

In Israel, it is assumed that the new government, despite a change in tone, has no way of influencing the content of the agreement currently being discussed in Vienna, which would likely see a return to the deal without any significant changes.

Israel is therefore being asked to trust the Americans who say that after returning to the agreement, there will be a second phase of negotiations in which conditions to strengthen and extend the current deal will be imposed, sources with direct knowledge of the issue told The Times of Israel.

President Reuven Rivlin addresses American Jewish community leaders in New York on June 27, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Meeting with heads of Jewish organizations and community leaders in New York on Sunday night, Rivlin referred to the recent presidential election results in Iran and said that the election of the hardline Ebrahim Raisi was “further proof of the terrible danger that the Iranian regime poses to the Iranian people, to Israel, to the Middle East and to the entire world.”

“I intend to talk about this with President Biden during our meeting,” Rivlin said.

Diplomatic relations

Meanwhile, with the change of government in Israel and a new president in the United States, Israel’s ambassador to the United States Gilad Erdan announced Sunday that he will leave as soon as a new envoy is appointed, and will not continue in his post beyond the end of November.

Erdan said in a statement that he feels the new government should install its own representative in Washington. However, Erdan, a former minister for the Likud party, said he plans to continue to serve as Israel’s envoy to the United Nations.

Then public security minister Gilad Erdan speaks at the 17th annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group, on February 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Erdan has been at the UN since last summer and in November also took office as ambassador to Washington. His team breathed a sigh of relief: the decision means less travel from New York to Washington, more time in the Big Apple.

In Jerusalem, there is agreement that the appointment of the new ambassador to Washington will be made jointly by Bennett and Lapid. No specific names are yet under consideration but the government is looking for a senior figure, possibly from the IDF, according to political sources.

In the meantime, Erdan will continue in New York, although the possibility remains that if he sees tectonic shifts happening within his Likud party creating a chance for a change in party leadership, he may decide to end his mission early and head back to Israel.

Erdan has been cited in the past as a potential successor to Netanyahu as head of the party, along with former health minister Yuli Edelstein, former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat and ex-finance minister Israel Katz.

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