Biden looks for air-clearing in first meeting with Israel’s new leader
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Biden looks for air-clearing in first meeting with Israel’s new leader

When Israel’s prime minister visits the White House on Thursday, for the first time in 12 years, it will be someone other than Benjamin Netanyahu.

That alone has lent the talks a sense of renewal, even though stark differences remain between President Joe Biden and his new counterpart, Naftali Bennett.

Biden views the Oval Office meeting as a reset opportunity with Israel, senior US administration officials said ahead of the talks — a chance to clear the air after years of stormy relations between Netanyahu and Democratic US administrations.

Biden wasted little time inviting Bennett to the White House, and phoned him two hours after the new prime minister was sworn into office in June — a distinct difference from the near-month it took Biden to call Netanyahu after his own inauguration at the beginning of this year.

Coming as a frantic airlift effort in Kabul enters its final days, the meeting also provides Biden an opening to focus attention somewhere other than Afghanistan.

Major divides still exist between Biden and the right-wing Bennett, particularly over the Iran nuclear deal and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Bennett has rejected the idea of a two-state solution to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, something Biden has supported for decades.

But the White House still views Bennett’s diverse coalition government — formed from parties on the right, left and center to prevent Netanyahu from staying in power — as a positive example of democracy at work. The administration is hopeful it portends a new era in US-Israel ties.

“It’s showing that people with divergent background and views can come together to solve big problems,” a senior administration official said in previewing the Thursday meeting, citing Biden’s oft-repeated belief that the world’s democracies must prove their worth against authoritarian regimes.

The air-clearing that officials hope will come from the meeting arrives against the backdrop of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which is on track to be complete by next week. Biden on Tuesday affirmed the August 31 deadline to get all US forces out of the country.

Part of his rationale for ending America’s longest war has been a desire to realign American foreign policy to more modern-day priorities. That mostly means countering threats from Russia and China — not necessarily the seemingly intractable politics of the Middle East, which Biden was reluctantly dragged into in May when violence flared between Israel and Gaza.

Still, officials said the end of the Afghanistan war could still lend more time for officials to focus on places like Israel.

“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,” the official said.

“If anything, in the Biden administration we are not pursuing unachievable goals,” the official went on. “We are not trying to transform the Middle East, we are 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.”

On Iran, officials acknowledge there are stark differences. Bennett hopes to convince Biden not to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal after Biden renewed talks with Iran earlier this year. But it’s unlikely he will publicly lecture Biden on the issue in the fashion of Netanyahu, who enraged the Obama administration with his public advocacy against the deal.

Short of convincing Biden of the pact’s failings, Bennett is expected to raise the need for other options should diplomacy fail in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And US officials admit Tehran’s nuclear program is advancing worrisomely fast.

“The two leaders will have an opportunity to sit together and discuss what to do about it,” the official said, saying the US belief remains that diplomacy is the best avenue to roll back Iran’s nuclear gains.

“Obviously if that doesn’t work, there are other avenues to pursue,” the official said.

The two leaders also plan to discuss the Abraham Accords, struck during the previous administration, that normalized relations between Israel and some Muslim-majority nations. The Biden administration has been working behind the scenes to expand those arrangements.

And the leaders will engage in what official predicted would be a constructive discussions on relations with the Palestinians after May’s cross-border conflict with militants in Gaza, even though Biden and Bennett do not see eye-to-eye.

The White House acknowledges that talks between Israelis and Palestinians aren’t feasible in the near-term, namely because Bennett’s own coalition government is divided on the best approach.

Bennett is set to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken ahead of his meeting with Biden, where he will tell Blinken that Israel seeks to “preserve stability” with the Palestinians, but not take any steps that change “the reality” of the current situation, an Israeli official told reporters Wednesday.

Still, officials say the White House is encouraged by steps Bennett has taken to deescalate the situation, including improving conditions in the West Bank and Gaza.

More than any specific issue, however, officials are looking forward to a visit that allows Biden a fresh start with a new prime minister. They said they looked for the “earliest” opportunity for the two to meet face-to-face, and noted that Bennett himself said as he departed for Washington this week he was “bringing with me a new spirit of cooperation.”

Biden and his team “are receiving him very much in that spirit,” an official said.

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