Ahead of first Bennett-Biden meeting

US knows Iran deal may be lost, is open to Israeli proposals — Bennett staffer

Senior official on PM’s team says significant progress made on nuclear issue, Israeli visa waivers and more

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Willard Hotel in Washington on August 25, 2021. (Avi Ohayon / GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Willard Hotel in Washington on August 25, 2021. (Avi Ohayon / GPO)

WASHINGTON — The US administration recognizes that a return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran might not be possible, and as a result is open to Israeli approaches to countering Iran, according to a senior member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s entourage.

The staffer said on Wednesday evening that on Iran, the Israeli team’s positions received “significant attention” from the administration, as “they themselves understand that it may be that we find ourselves in a reality without an agreement, and [even] if there is an agreement, there are holes that must be filled.”

The staffer added that the two governments are so closely coordinated on Iran that they often use the same terminology and raise the same questions as they discuss their options if Iran does not return to the JCPOA.

Bennett is in Washington for the first time since becoming prime minister, holding a series of meetings with top administration officials, with the Iranian nuclear threat the most pressing issue on his agenda. Bennett and US President Joe Biden will meet on Thursday.

Bennett’s government opposes US efforts to return to the Iran nuclear agreement signed in 2015 by the Obama administration and abandoned three years later by former US president Donald Trump. Biden has been seeking a return to the deal, but this has looked increasingly unlikely as Iran has moved further away from its obligations and as a hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, has taken office in Tehran.

Bennett’s team feels that the first day of his trip to Washington was a success, according to the staff member.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon on August 25, 2021. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Bennett came with four primary goals for the trip, the official noted: to forge a direct connection and rapport with Biden; to help the US understand the prime minister’s approach regarding Iran; to ensure US commitment to replenishing stocks for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system; and to move forward on a visa waiver agreement for Israelis looking to enter the US.

“These were the four things that we wanted to come home with, and I think we are certainly returning home with our arms full,” she said.

On Wednesday Bennett met with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei checks the time in farewell meeting with outgoing President Hassan Rouhani’s administration in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, July 28, 2021. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

The official said that there was significant progress on the visa waiver issue and that Blinken had issued a directive to advance the matter, though there was still work ahead. The official indicated that US openness to move forward on visa waivers was a gesture from the administration to the Israeli public.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said after the meeting between Bennett and Blinken that the two had agreed on the importance of working toward Israel’s inclusion in the US Visa Waiver Program.

Palestinians clash with Israeli troops during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza City, on August 21, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The Bennett staffer expressed satisfaction with the understanding the Americans have shown regarding the cause of the uptick in violence on the Gaza border, saying the US sees Hamas as responsible. Bennett brought up the issue of Israeli soldiers and civilians held in Gaza during his conversations Wednesday, she added.

On Thursday morning, Bennett will meet Biden for the first time at the White House before returning back to Israel later in the day.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recites morning prayers at his hotel in Washington on August 25, 2021. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

During Wednesday’s meetings, the premier was assured that the administration would supply Israel with the means necessary to defend itself against Iran.

Before entering his meeting with Bennett at the Pentagon, Austin said the Department of Defense was “committed to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, and to ensur[ing] that Israel can defend itself against threats from Iran, its proxies, and terrorist groups.”

He also noted Iran’s “alarming nuclear steps and continuing regional aggression,” saying it “must be held accountable for acts of aggression in the Middle East and on international waters,” Austin said. The defense secretary pointed the finger squarely at Tehran for the July 30 attack on the Israeli-linked Mercer Street tanker in the Gulf of Oman, in which two people were killed.

The defense secretary added that the “US is committed to strengthening its strategic relationship with Israel. The administration is committed to Israel’s security and its right to self-defense.”

Austin said the US was also committed to the replenishment of Iron Dome interceptor missiles after the missile defense system was used in overdrive during the Gaza war in May, when Hamas fired thousands of rockets at Israel.

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