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Touting reset of ties, Bennett heads to US to map out Iran strategy with Biden

On tarmac, PM says he’s bringing a new ‘spirit of cooperation’ to Washington, which he hopes will bolster Israel’s security

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett departs for Washington, on August 24, 2021. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett departs for Washington, on August 24, 2021. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett promised to work with the United States on a scheme to block Iran from advancing its nuclear program, as he departed for talks with US President Joe Biden and other senior administration officials in Washington on Tuesday.

Bennett took off from Ben Gurion Airport late Tuesday afternoon, after his first official overseas trip was briefly delayed by protesters.

“There is a new administration in the US and a new government in Israel, and I am bringing with me from Jerusalem a new spirit of cooperation,” Bennett said before boarding his plane. “I have no doubt that this new spirit of cooperation has contributed, and will continue to contribute, to the security of Israel.”

Bennett said that the main focus of his meetings will be Iran’s nuclear program, particularly the advances made in the last years.

“We will plan how to block the Iranian nuclear program,” he said.

The premier added he and Biden — who he hailed as a “true friend” of Israel — will also discuss several initiatives that will help Israel maintain its qualitative military edge, along with trade, technological innovation, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett departs for Washington for his first official trip as prime minister, on August 24, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“I plan to share with President Biden the information and insights we’re gathering from the third vaccine campaign here,” he said.

Bennett’s departure from the airport was briefly delayed by a group of El Al employees protesting on Ben Gurion Airport’s tarmac several hundred yards away from his plane, as part of demonstrations by aviation workers over the impact of coronavirus travel restrictions on their livelihoods.

While the White House said that talks with Bennett would include discussions regarding the Palestinians, Israeli officials have made no mention of that aspect of the planned meeting, instead playing up the Iranian issue.

Bennett has long publicly opposed the Biden administration’s stated plan to reenter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which former US president Donald Trump pulled out of in 2018.

Western powers — with the US participating indirectly — held months of negotiations with Iran in Vienna earlier this year, but talks stalled ahead of the installation of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s president earlier this month.

Ahead of Bennett’s trip, a senior diplomatic source said that the prime minister no longer believes a US return to the 2015 nuclear pact is a given.

“When we began to plan the visit, a return to the agreement seemed certain. Since then, time has passed, the president in Iran has changed, and things seem far less certain. In our view, it may be that there is no return to the agreement,” said the source, during a phone briefing on Monday evening.

Instead, during their meeting, Bennett will present Biden with a strategy for confronting both Iran’s nuclear program and its regional activities without returning to the 2015 nuclear agreement, the source said.

Bennett will argue that Iran’s nuclear program has advanced too far for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to have any relevance in 2021. Though it might plug some holes on the enrichment side, the deal gives the Islamic Republic too much in return, the official maintained.

“We inherited an Iran that is working extremely aggressively and is empowering very negative forces in the region,” said the source, indicating criticism of the previous, Benjamin Netanyahu-led, government’s handling of the issue.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the full FDA approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, on August 23, 2021, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

While Bennett has stressed that the bulk of his meeting with Biden will focus on Iran, the White House statement on Bennett’s visit noted plans to discuss “efforts to advance peace, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians and the importance of working towards a more peaceful and secure future for the region.”

No major concessions to the Palestinians are expected to be announced during the trip.

Bennett’s trip comes as the Biden administration is dealing with the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, and both leaders face spiraling COVID-19 numbers in their respective countries.

Despite the ongoing COVID crisis in Israel, “the timing of the visit is very important because we are at a critical point regarding Iran,” Bennett said on Sunday during the weekly cabinet meeting.

The prime minister said that the Iranians are “advancing rapidly with uranium enrichment, which has already significantly shortened the time that it would take for them to accumulate the material required for a single nuclear bomb.”

In this image made from April 17, 2021, video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line the hall damaged on Sunday, April 11, 2021, at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, some 200 miles (322 km) south of the capital Tehran. (IRIB via AP, File)

On Sunday, Bennett noted that shortly after he returns from Washington, he will host outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and, not long after that, he will visit Cairo “to meet Egyptian President [Abdel-Fattah] el-Sissi, who invited me.”

Last week, Bennett met with Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate chair Abbas Kamel, who extended the invitation on behalf of Sissi.

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