Bennett Heralds 'New Spirit' as He Departs for Biden Meeting, Says Iran Will Top the Agenda

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett prepares to board a flight to Washington at Tel Aviv airport, on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett prepares to board a flight to Washington at Tel Aviv airport, on Tuesday.Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Tuesday he was confident of the "new spirit" in Israeli-U.S. ties, just before taking off for Washington, where he will meet President Joe Biden.

"There are new leaderships in the U.S. and in Israel," Bennett told reporters at Ben-Gurion International Airport. "I bring with me from Jerusalem a new spirit that is founded on years of special connection between the two countries. I'm certain this new spirit of cooperation already has and will keep on leading to great achievements for Israel and its security."

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Bennett added that Iran will top the agenda in his Thursday meeting with Biden, but said they will also discuss the coronavirus pandemic, and Israel's world-first booster vaccine drive, the climate crisis and economic issues.

During his visit, Bennett is also expected to meet Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

"The meeting between Bennett and Biden is an important signal to world leaders that the new Israeli prime minister is getting a strong American embrace and support equal to what his predecessor received from the White House,” a diplomatic source said. “There is also an important message to the Israeli public about Bennett’s status as prime minister in the post-Netanyahu era.”

A diplomatic source said Monday that the heart of the discussion between the two will be the Iranian nuclear issue, and he condemned the way former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had handled it. “The legacy we received is very difficult,” he said. “There is no value in returning to the [2015] nuclear agreement. Iran is now at the most advanced point of its nuclear program, at least in terms of enrichment [of uranium]. The rate of enrichment since 2018 is dizzying and worrisome.” 

The source said Bennett would present Biden with an “orderly strategy” to cope with the threat posed by Tehran. “For us the most important thing is the nuclear [issue] but also important is [Iran’s] regional aggression in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Gaza, by sea, air and land,” he said.

The timing of the meeting is uncomfortable for both sides: Biden is preoccupied with the crisis in Afghanistan while Bennett is leaving Israel in the midst of another wave of the coronavirus and rising tensions in Gaza. 

The source added that although the timing of the visit wasn't ideal, the United States considers it very important. Its purpose, he said, “was to reflect the new message coming from Israel, of a cross-border connection with both sides of American politics, through dialogue, listening and lack of dogmatism.” 

Navigating climate change

Biden also intends to speak with Bennett about the climate change crisis and regional cooperation for renewable energy development, a senior White House source told Haaretz. Whereas Biden has made the climate crisis a key focus for his administration, Bennett will find it difficult to present ambitious targets or significant actions, as Israel has struggled to meet even the comparatively low targets it has set for itself. 

In light of this, Bennett has been readying himself in recent days for questions from Biden about Israel's actions on the climate crisis, even meeting with climate experts and professionals for the first time. "Bennett understands that this is the most important issue for Biden and that he will have to show steps and provide answers," one source told Haaretz. “Israel lags behind, but the prime minister hopes that the new climate goals that Israel passed at the last minute will signal to the president that his government intends to act in this area with determination."

Although the government approved a decision on the transition to a low-carbon economy last month, just before Israel violated its commitment to the Paris Agreement, the Energy and Finance Ministries have removed mandatory renewable energy targets, which experts say are necessary if the program is to succeed.

The Energy Ministry is not currently committed to any numerical targets in this arena. What’s more, when it comes to reducing emissions from electricity generation, the original target of 35 percent by 2030 has been reduced to 30 percent.

The Israeli delegation will be conducting itself under very strict coronavirus restrictions; Bennett wants to avoid a lengthy quarantine upon his return to Israel so that he can maintain his regular schedule. Among other things, he is meant to meet Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is making a farewell visit before her retirement.

Bennett and his entourage will conduct itself as a closed pod; members will not leave their hotel for most of the visit nor meet anyone who has not been checked beforehand. Upon the delegation’s return to Israel, members will quarantine for only two days, with Bennett resuming work Sunday morning, subject to a coronavirus test.

Lee Yaron contributed to this report.

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