Israel's Naftali Bennett seeks US 'reset' in first White House visit

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will meet US President Joe Biden on Aug 24 and attempt to mend ties. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett heads to Washington on Tuesday (Aug 24) for talks with US President Joe Biden, seeking to "reset" relations with Israel's closest ally and reach common ground on arch-foe Iran.

In his first state visit since taking office in June, Mr Bennett will meet Mr Biden on Thursday and attempt to mend ties with America's top Democrat, which were strained under former premier Benjamin Netanyahu, accused of openly favouring the Republican party.

"Right now, the biggest transaction taking place between the two countries is a refresh and a reset of bilateral relations," Mr Scott Lasensky, former president Barack Obama's senior policy adviser on Israel, told AFP.

Mr Netanyahu alienated Democratic leaders through his relentless public criticism of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers negotiated by the Obama administration, in which Mr Biden served as vice-president.

Mr Netanyahu's tight embrace of Mr Obama's successor - president Donald Trump, whom he repeatedly called "the best friend" Israel ever had in the White House - further rankled Mr Biden's party.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hinted at a new approach when he met his US counterpart Antony Blinken in June.

"In the past few years, mistakes were made. Israel's bipartisan standing was hurt. We will fix those mistakes together," Mr Lapid said.

No Iran 'lifeline'

While Mr Bennett may aim to warm the diplomatic waters, he remains a foreign policy hawk staunchly opposed to the Iran accord, which lifted sanctions on Teheran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful but has progressively withdrawn from key commitments, including on uranium enrichment, in response to sanctions imposed by Mr Trump after he unilaterally yanked the United States out of the deal in 2018.

"I will tell President Biden that it is time to stop the Iranians... not to give them a lifeline in the form of re-entering into an expired nuclear deal," the 49-year-old Israeli Premier said on Sunday.

Mr Bennett's meeting with Mr Biden, 78, comes two months after talks in Vienna on reviving the deal broke up without any discernible progress.

Ms Or Rabinowitz, an expert on nuclear proliferation and US-Israel relations at the Hebrew University, told AFP she thinks that "the Iranian issue will top the agenda" at the meeting.

Israel wants to "set a new jargon", or understanding, with the US over what would constitute Iran crossing a threshold towards building a nuclear weapon, she said.

Mr Bennett suggested that approach on Sunday, but offered no specifics.

"We will present an orderly plan that we have formulated in the past two months to curb the Iranians," he said.

The Israeli leader will land in Washington amid growing concerns about the prospects of reviving the Iran deal.

Ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi took the oath of office in Iran early this month, after winning a presidential election in June.

'Nothing' for Palestinians

Mr Bennett leads an ideologically disparate eight-party coalition that ranges from dovish parties to hardliners like himself, and he has avoided the Palestinian question in favour of consensus issues like health and the economy.

Ms Shira Efron, a senior fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, said Mr Biden's administration had modest ambitions, mainly focused on undoing some of Mr Trump's moves to favour Israel.

"The Biden administration understands this is a shaky coalition," she said. "I don't think Biden is going to push Naftali Bennett to try to restart peace negotiations (between Israel and the Palestinians)."

Political scientist Ali Jarbawi at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank expected that talks between Mr Bennett and Mr Biden would mean "nothing" to Palestinians suffering under Israeli "apartheid".

Israel firmly rejects accusations that its treatment of the Palestinians amounts to apartheid.

"Biden is not going to solve the conflict," Mr Jarbawi said.

"If they talk about Palestinians at all, they will talk about improving the lives of Palestinians under occupation, so it's the same as it used to be."

Mr Biden's administration has restored millions in funding to Palestinians after Mr Trump ended aid, including to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

An expected friction point at the talks will be the Biden administration's pledge to reopen a consulate general in Jerusalem responsible for US-Palestinian affairs.

Mr Trump closed that mission in 2019 after he had moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, bolstering Israel's disputed claim of sovereignty over east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim for the capital of a future state.

Mr Eugene Kontorovich, who advised the Trump administration on Israel, said re-establishing the consulate would "almost certainly" feature at the talks, and would likely encounter opposition from Mr Bennett, who "is ideologically and fundamentally committed to the integrity of Jerusalem".

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