That alone lent the talks a sense of renewal, even though stark differences remain between President Joe Biden and his new Israeli counterpart Naftali Bennett.
“I bring with me a new spirit,” Bennett said in warm remarks from the Oval Office as the meeting was getting underway, “a spirit of good will, a spirit of hope, a spirit of decency and honesty, a spirit of unity and bipartisanship, of folks who — as you suggested — harbor very different political opinions, even opposing, yet we all share the deep passion to work together to build a better future for Israel.”
“We’ve become close friends,” Biden said, though he’d just met the new prime minister for the first time an hour earlier.
Friday’s meeting had originally been scheduled for a day earlier but was postponed in the wake of a deadly terrorist attack in Kabul that killed 13 American service members. Biden cleared his schedule for meetings with top national security officials. He and Bennett spoke by phone on Thursday evening ahead of the rescheduled talks.
The delay by a day means Bennett, an Orthodox Jew, will remain in Washington until Saturday evening after the Sabbath ends, his office said.
In warm remarks, Biden hailed Bennett’s coalition as the “most diverse government in Israeli history,” and said the US was committed to ensuring Iran never develops a nuclear weapon.
“We’re putting diplomacy first. If diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options,” he said, without elaborating.
He spoke in only broad terms about other issues in the region, saying he planned to discuss “ways for increased peace and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians.”
“The US will always be there for Israel. It’s an unshakable partnership between our two nations,” Biden said.
Biden’s meeting with Bennett was arranged quickly after the Israeli leader formed a government earlier this summer, depriving Netanyahu of another term in office.
With Bennett now in power, Biden aides believe a reset is at hand. Already, CIA Director William Burns has traveled to Israel, a signal the intelligence relationship is being restored. While in Washington, Bennett was also meeting with the secretaries of state and defense.
Like Netanyahu, he is opposed to restarting the Iran nuclear deal, which Biden has sought to re-enter through talks in Vienna. That diplomacy has proceeded in fits and starts, however, and US administration officials have made clear Tehran’s nuclear program is advancing quickly.
“Iran’s nuclear program has just dramatically broken out of the box, and it’s accelerating from week to week. This is a very serious problem, and the two leaders, I think, will have the opportunity to sit together and discuss what to do about it,” one US official told reporters ahead of the visit.
“We, of course, committed to a diplomatic path,” the official went on. “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.”
The White House hasn’t elaborated on what those “other avenues” might entail.
Biden, who has said he wants to refocus American foreign policy away from decades-old conflicts toward modern-day threats like Russia and China, has not prioritized Middle East peace. He and his aides say they believe the conditions are not right for direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.