President Biden met with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to try to reset U.S.-Israel relations after their predecessors’ polarizing relationship.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
President Biden had hoped to spend much of Thursday hosting the new prime minister of Israel, Naftali Bennett. That was before the fatal bombings in Kabul, and Biden postponed the meeting till today. Israeli officials were already concerned the Afghanistan withdrawal might distract attention from this historic first meeting between the new leaders of both countries. NPR’s Daniel Estrin traveled from Jerusalem with Bennett. He’s here now.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Welcome to Washington, for starters.
ESTRIN: Thank you.
KELLY: And start with just how this all played out because it’s pretty unusual for a big meeting like this to be delayed so last minute.
ESTRIN: Yeah, it was not like the Israelis would have liked. We reporters were in place at the White House, and then 15 minutes before the meeting in the Oval Office was supposed to begin yesterday, the White House postponed the meeting because of the Kabul attacks. And so the meeting happened instead today. And afterwards, we reporters met with Bennett and his staff. Bennett said he was very appreciative of the two hours that Biden devoted to him today and that Biden was very friendly and attentive.
Now, this delay means that Bennett and his delegation have to stay two extra days in the U.S. because Israeli prime ministers traditionally do not travel on the Jewish Sabbath, which begins tonight. But the Israelis – just one other thing is that they really didn’t want to bring up Afghanistan on this trip, but an Israeli official told us that the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan reinforced Israel’s conviction that the U.S. should not pull out of Iraq and Syria.
KELLY: What is Bennett seeking from this visit?
ESTRIN: I think the most important thing is that he wanted to establish a direct personal relationship with President Biden because that was his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu’s, strong point. He was a veteran close with Trump, which Israeli voters appreciated, a known quantity in Washington. And Bennett never met Biden at all before today, so he tried to establish a personal rapport.
It was a bit of a reach. He commented on how he used to live in the U.S. for a while and take the same Amtrak line that Biden would take. Biden seemed to like that. You know, he loves the Amtrak. But both leaders want a new chapter after the rocky Netanyahu years where he favored Trump and angered Democrats. This is how Bennett put it.
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PRIME MINISTER NAFTALI BENNETT: I bring with me a new spirit – a spirit of goodwill, a spirit of hope, a spirit of decency and honesty, a spirit of unity and bipartisanship.
KELLY: A lot of spirit. In terms of matters of substance, we know that Iran is Israel’s top concern. Biden’s trying to restore the nuclear deal with Iran. Israel really doesn’t want that to happen. Did they make any progress on that front?
ESTRIN: Well, Bennett said he was very happy when Biden said this today.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We’re putting diplomacy first. We’re seeing where that takes us. But if diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options.
ESTRIN: So what are those other options? Well, Bennett said that the U.S. has agreed to work on a joint strategy with Israel on countering Iran. They’re keeping the details in the shadows, though.
KELLY: And just briefly, what about the other big point of tension, the policy on the Palestinians?
BENNETT: Well, Bennett, in every meeting he had with – as U.S. officials said, he laid out his policy. He would not annex the West Bank. He will allow settlements in the West Bank to expand steadily. And he will not enter peace talks with Palestinians, but he will do improvements to give – improvements to Palestinians’ lives.
KELLY: Thank you, Daniel.
ESTRIN: You’re welcome.
KELLY: NPR’s Daniel Estrin reporting tonight in Washington.
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