Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met on Wednesday in Jerusalem with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and other visiting US officials, as Israel remained concerned over Western talks in Vienna with Iran over its nuclear program. Sullivan said the US and Israel are at a “critical juncture” in facing a major set of security issues, and need to “develop a common strategy” that serves both their interests.
“These days are pretty important,” Bennett told Sullivan in public remarks in English ahead of their meeting. “What happens in Vienna has profound ramifications for the stability of the Middle East and the security of Israel for the upcoming years. And that’s why it’s such a timely meeting.”
Sullivan told the prime minister that US President Joe Biden sent him to Israel “even just before Christmas” to coordinate and cooperate on their approach to Iran and other security issues.
“At a critical juncture for both of our countries on a major set of security issues, it’s important that we sit together and develop a common strategy, a common outlook, and find a way forward that fundamentally secures your country’s interests and mine,” said Sullivan. “And we believe those interests, like the values upon which our countries are built, are deeply shared and deeply felt.”
Sullivan then held meetings with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
The meeting between Sullivan and Gantz also focused on Iran, the Defense Ministry said.
“During the meeting, a variety of strategic and cooperative issues were discussed, chief among them the Iranian nuclear fight and Iran’s regional aggression,” Gantz’s office said, noting that IDF chief Aviv Kohavi and director-general of the Defense Ministry Amir Eshel also attended.
During the meeting, which was held at the Knesset, the defense minister also spoke with Sullivan about Israel’s efforts to strengthen ties with the Palestinian Authority, according to his office.
Sullivan held a meeting earlier on Wednesday with his Israeli counterpart, Eyal Hulata, and late Tuesday evening he met with President Isaac Herzog. US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and Israeli Ambassador to the US Mike Herzog also took part in Sullivan’s meetings with both Bennett and Herzog.
Sullivan and Bennett met shortly after reports surfaced saying that Biden has been ignoring Bennett’s request for a phone call, which Bennett appeared to downplay on Wednesday.
“I want to say that the relationship between my government and the Biden administration, between Israel and the United States, is as strong as ever,” Bennett said Wednesday. “And being so strong and having this meaningful friendship means that we can also talk openly and candidly about all the shared challenges that we’re facing. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Herzog’s meeting with Sullivan also focused largely on Iran, with the president expressing “concern with Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons under the cover of the negotiations in Vienna,” according to his office.
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.
The talks had resumed in late November after a five-month break following the election of a new hardline government in Iran.
During a press briefing with reporters on Sunday, US State Department Spokesman Ned Price said the White House was not particularly optimistic about the talks, but was not giving up hope.
We are “curbing our enthusiasm for where we are and where we might go. There’s still a lot of work to do,” said Price. “What the team experienced on the ground in Vienna until the talks adjourned late last week, it was progress, but it wasn’t at a pace that was sufficient to get us to where we need if we are to render the JCPOA as a viable vehicle going forward.”
Earlier this month, 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.
A senior administration official told reporters on Monday that Sullivan was not delivering any new information to Israeli officials during this trip.
“It’s a visit that was long-planned, the culmination of a year of very close consultation,” the official said in response to a question from The Times of Israel. “So, there’s not — you know, there’s not a new deliverable or anything. This is part of a face-to-face engagement with close partners.”
After his meetings in Israel, Sullivan will travel to Ramallah to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Jacob Magid and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.