In shadow of Afghan airport attack, Biden and Israeli PM seek to narrow differences on Iran

President Joe Biden (right) and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meet in the Oval Office of the White House on Aug. 27, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett searched for common ground on Iran at their first White House meeting on Friday (Aug 27), even as the US leader grappled with the aftermath of a deadly suicide bombing in Kabul during a chaotic US evacuation from Afghanistan.

After a one-day delay due to the Islamic State attack that killed 13 US soldiers and 72 Afghans, Biden and Bennett met to reset the tone of US-Israeli relations and narrow sharp differences over how to deal with Iran's nuclear programme.

Tensions complicated relations between Bennett's predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was close to former President Donald Trump, and the last Democratic administration led by Barack Obama with Biden as his vice-president.

But the meeting, the first since the two men took office this year, was eclipsed by Thursday's attack outside Kabul airport during a US withdrawal that has posed the worst crisis of Biden's young presidency.

"The mission there... is dangerous and now it's come with a significant loss of American personnel, but it's a worthy mission... We will complete the mission," Biden told reporters after his one-on-one talks with Bennett.

US forces helping to evacuate Afghans desperate to flee new Taleban rule were on alert for more attacks on Friday.

In brief remarks to reporters before they were ushered out, both leaders touched on Iran, one of the thorniest issues between the Biden administration and Israel.

Biden said he and Bennett were discussing "the threat from Iran and our commitment to ensure Iran never develops a nuclear weapon."

"We're putting diplomacy first and we'll see where that takes us. But if diplomacy fails, we're ready to turn to other options," Biden added, without offering specifics.

Bennett, a far-right politician who ended Netanyahu's 12-year run as prime minister in June, was expected to press Biden to harden his approach to Iran and back out of negotiations aimed at reviving an international nuclear deal with Teheran that Trump abandoned.

Biden was expected to tell Bennett that he shares Israel's concern that Iran has expanded its nuclear programme but wants to give diplomacy a chance before looking at other options, a senior administration official said earlier, even as US-Iran negotiations remain stalled.

Bennett told reporters he agreed with Biden that there were other options if US negotiations with Iran fail but also stopped short of identifying the possibilities.

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Bennett has sought to move on from Netanyahu's combative public style and instead manage disagreements behind closed doors between Washington and its closest Middle East ally.

But he has been just as adamant as Netanyahu was in pledging to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran, which Israel views as an existential threat, from building a nuclear weapon. Iran consistently denies it is seeking a bomb.

The visit gave Biden an opportunity to demonstrate business as usual with a key partner while contending with the volatile situation in Afghanistan. His handling of the wrapping-up of the US military presence there after 20 years of war has not only hurt his approval ratings at home but raised questions about his credibility among both friends and foes abroad.

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