US pullout from Afghanistan frees up resources for Israel, Biden officials say

In briefing ahead of Bennett meeting, White House insists it is not de-prioritizing Middle East or ties with Israel, but rather avoiding unachievable goals

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP)
US soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP)

WASHINGTON — The US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will ultimately free up resources that can subsequently be diverted to other regional allies such as Israel, a pair of senior officials in the Biden administration said on Tuesday.

“If anything, the end of America’s military involvement in Afghanistan frees up resources and attention and ultimately allows us to better support our partners like Israel,” one of the officials said in a background briefing ahead of US President Joe Biden’s hosting of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House on Thursday.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Biden will use the opportunity to reinforce his commitment to Israel and other US allies in the region “in the backdrop of what’s going on in Afghanistan.”

The officials rejected a notion repeated frequently by analysts since the recent presidential election campaign that Biden is seeking to “de-prioritize the Middle East” in order to focus more squarely on combating the growing influences of China and Russia.

“Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, in the Biden administration, we are not pursuing… unachievable goals,” one of the senior officials said during the briefing.

“We’re not trying to transform the Middle East. We’re not trying to overthrow regimes. We are pursuing a very steady course, centered on achievable aims; alignment of ends and means; and, first and foremost, support to our partners, and, of course, Israel being second to none,” the official said.

President Joe Biden speaks in the East Room of the White House on August 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images via AFP)

This philosophy appears to have extended to the administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where it has insisted that it will not unveil a peace plan or call on the parties to immediately return to the negotiation table for high-stakes talks on final status issues.

The Biden officials said the Palestinian issue would be raised during Bennett’s meeting with Biden but were light on further details, beyond reiterating Biden’s support for a two-state solution — something the Israeli premier opposes.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Willard Hotel in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. (Olivier Douliery/Pool via AP)

“There are a number of steps that can be taken to kind of dampen the risks of further sparks to conflict, which is something that we have seen Prime Minister Bennett and his government very much committed to,” one of the senior officials said.

Bennett’s government has so far approved thousands of additional permits for Palestinians to work inside Israel and has moved to authorize hundreds of building permits as well in the West Bank’s Area C, but those approvals have stalled and they will also be advanced in tandem with a larger number of approvals for new settlement units deep in the West Bank.

More critical as far as Bennett is concerned, the sides will discuss in-depth Iran’s escalating rush toward a nuclear weapon, the Biden officials confirmed.

The officials clarified that the US still prefers a diplomatic approach to stopping Iran, specifically by returning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Indirect talks between Iran and the US in Vienna have stalled in recent months as Tehran moves to swear in a new, hardline government led by Ebrahim Raisi, who has been more critical of the JCPOA — a plan that Israel also opposes, but because Jerusalem deems it as an insufficient means for blocking Iran’s path to a bomb.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett boards a plane heading for the United States, on August 24, 2021. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

“We think that is the best way to put a ceiling on the program and roll back the gains that Iran has made over recent years on the nuclear side. But obviously, if that doesn’t work, there are other avenues to pursue,” one of the senior officials said.

The two leaders will also discuss Iran’s support for proxy terror groups throughout the region like Hezbollah and Hamas as well as the “very effective bilateral program we’ve set up with the Israelis during a strategic consultation group that we had with them a couple of months ago on countering Iranian UAVs,” an official said.

Biden will also raise the Abraham Accords brokered by the Trump administration and discuss with Bennett ways in which the existing normalization agreements Israel reached with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan can be developed along with strategies for expanding the list of participating countries.

The officials were particularly light on details regarding this topic, only saying that efforts were taking place “behind the scenes.”

They also noted US satisfaction in Israel’s recent warming of ties with Jordan and Egypt. Bennett secretly visited Amman last month for a meeting with King Abdullah and has been invited to meet with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo in the coming weeks.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will also be discussed, namely both countries’ rollout of booster shots, the officials said.

The officials also commented on their appreciation for the diverse government that Bennett has formed.

“We think it’s truly remarkable at a time when, as the President often says, we’re demonstrating that democracies can deliver for their people. That’s something we think his government is truly doing, and showing that people with divergent backgrounds and views can come together to solve big problems,” one of them said, adding that the US is “attuned to the complicated political dynamics in Israel.”

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