By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The first White House meeting between President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was postponed until Friday, overshadowed by suicide bombings near Kabul airport during a chaotic U.S. evacuation mission from Afghanistan.
Two deadly explosions https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/western-nations-race-complete-afghan-evacuation-deadline-looms-2021-08-25 occurred on Thursday just hours before Biden and Bennett were due to meet for talks in Washington aimed at resetting the tone of U.S.-Israeli relations and searching for common ground on Iran despite differences on how to deal with its nuclear program.
The two leaders will try to turn the page on years of tensions 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.
The meeting, the first since the two men took office, was originally delayed until later in the day while Biden held consultations about the explosions in Kabul. But as the U.S. death toll mounted, U.S. and Israeli officials said the meeting had been called off for the day. The timing of the meeting on Friday was not yet disclosed.
At least a dozen U.S. troops were killed and several others wounded in one of the bombings, U.S. sources told Reuters. There was no complete death toll of Afghan civilians but video images uploaded by Afghan journalists showed dozens of bodies. Crowds of people have gathered at the airport desperately hoping to flee Afghanistan following the swift takeover by the Taliban.
In what has been arranged as a low-key encounter, Bennett wants to move on from Netanyahu’s combative public style and instead manage disagreements constructively behind closed doors between Washington and its closest Middle East ally.
The visit gives Biden an opportunity to demonstrate business as usual with a key partner while contending with the complex situation in Afghanistan. Biden’s biggest foreign policy crisis since taking office has not only hurt his approval ratings at home but raised questions about his credibility among both friends and foes.
Topping the agenda is Iran, one of the thorniest issues between the Biden administration and Israel.
Bennett, a far-right politician who ended Netanyahu’s 12-year run as prime minister in June, is expected to press Biden to harden his approach to Iran and halt negotiations aimed at reviving the international nuclear deal that Trump abandoned.
Biden will tell Bennett that he shares Israel’s concern that Iran has expanded its nuclear program but remains committed for now to diplomacy with Tehran, a senior administration official said. U.S.-Iran negotiations have stalled as Washington awaits the next move by Iran’s new hardline president.
Briefing reporters ahead of the meeting, the official said: “Since the last administration left the Iran nuclear deal, Iran’s nuclear program has just dramatically broken out of the box.”
The official said that if the diplomatic path with Iran fails, “there are other avenues to pursue,” but did not elaborate.
Bennett has been less openly combative but 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.
AT ODDS ON PALESTINIAN ISSUES
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Biden and Bennett are also divided. Biden has renewed backing for a two-state solution after Trump distanced himself from that long-standing tenet of U.S. policy. Bennett opposes Palestinian statehood.
The consensus among Biden’s aides is that now is not the time to push for a resumption of long-dormant peace talks or major Israeli concessions, which could destabilize Bennett’s ideologically diverse coalition.
But Biden’s aides have not ruled out asking Bennett for modest gestures to help avoid a recurrence of the fierce Israel-Hamas fighting in the Gaza Strip that caught the new U.S. administration flat-footed earlier this year.
Biden’s advisers are also mindful that Israeli officials may be concerned about the apparent failure of U.S. intelligence to predict the rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.
Biden intends to reassure Bennett that the end of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan does not reflect a “de-prioritizing” of the U.S. commitment to Israel and other Middle East allies, the senior U.S. official said.
(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Steve Holland and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; editing by Grant McCool)