Biden said ignoring Bennett’s request for phone call, as US officials meet Herzog

Report claims White House snubbing Israeli leader over frustration with settlement construction; US National Security Adviser Sullivan on 3-day visit to Mideast, focused on Iran

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan (L) meets with President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem on December 21, 2021 (Haim Zach/GPO)
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan (L) meets with President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem on December 21, 2021 (Haim Zach/GPO)

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan held talks Tuesday with President Isaac Herzog, his first meeting on a three-day trip to the region, that comes amid reports of tensions between the White House and Jerusalem.

Channel 13 news reported that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had requested a telephone call with US President Joe Biden some three weeks ago, but had yet to receive an answer.

The report said Bennett was eager to talk to Biden amid the resumption of nuclear talks with Iran, however, the US ignored the request, apparently over growing frustrations with Israeli settlement construction.

Bennett’s office downplayed the incident, saying that the idea of a conversation had been raised in talks with US officials, but no formal request had been submitted to the White House.

There was no mention of the tensions or discussions about settlements in a statement from Herzog’s office after the meeting, even though the president had said earlier Tuesday that he would raise with Sullivan the issue of allowing a yeshiva to remain at Homesh, the illegal settlement outpost where the victim of last week’s deadly terror shooting attack had studied.

Herzog made the promise during a condolence visit to the family of Yehuda Dimentman, who demanded the yeshiva be allowed to remain and protected by the IDF as a “price for the blood spilled.”

Herzog told them he understood their demand, but that there were also “regional and international issues at play.”

Family and friends attend a funeral service for Yehuda Dimentman, in Homesh, in the West Bank, on December 17, 2021. Dimentman was shot dead in a terrorist attack near Homesh the night before. (Flash90)

Herzog’s office said the meeting with Sullivan largely focused on Iran. There was no immediate readout from the Americans.

Herzog “expressed his concern with Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons under the cover of the negotiations in Vienna,” the statement said.

Herzog told Sullivan that the Middle East is currently divided into two coalitions; “Israel and Arab states pursuing peace, resisting Iran, and working toward a better world for their citizens, and Iran’s coalition of terror with its proxies, which seeks to destabilize the region.”

“The president underscored the need to stop Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, at any price,” the statement said.

Also in the meeting were Israel’s Ambassador to the US Mike Herzog (the president’s brother) and US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides.

During the visit to Israel, Sullivan will also meet with Bennett and participate in the fourth meeting of the Strategic Consultative Group (SCG) alongside Israeli counterpart Eyal Hulata. The SCG is a bilateral group aimed at collaborating in the effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The meetings come as European diplomats warn that nuclear negotiations in Vienna to secure a return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran are “rapidly reaching the end of the road.”

In a blow to European mediators, Iran requested a new pause in the talks, which aim to bring the United States back into the agreement and roll back Iran’s nuclear activities. The Islamic Republic publicly stepped up its nuclear projects after the US withdrawal from the deal in 2018.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the IAEA, presents a surveillance camera at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria, on December 17, 2021. Alex Halada/AFP)

The talks had resumed in late November after a five-month break following the election of a new hardline government in Iran.

Underlying Western concerns are fears that Iran will soon make enough nuclear progress to render the accord — under which it was promised economic relief in return for drastic curbs on its nuclear work — obsolete.

Earlier this month, Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited Washington for discussions on Iran. He later told reporters he’d notified US officials that he had instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for a strike against Iran.

Joining Sullivan in Israel are US envoy to the Middle East Brett McGurk and the State Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert.

After his meetings in Israel, Sullivan will travel to Ramallah to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Lempert will join Sullivan in some of his meetings and also hold her own sit-down with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. She will subsequently travel to Jordan where she will meet with senior government officials, including Water and Irrigation Minister Mohammed Al-Najjar and Planning and International Cooperation Minister Nasser Shraideh, the State Department said, apparently to discuss the recent deal between Jordan and Israel on energy and water.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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