US President Joe Biden received Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a day after a deadly attack on the US evacuation in Kabul led to the postponement of the meeting, which was scheduled for Thursday.
“My thoughts and our hearts go out to all of those we have lost,” Biden said after the meeting.
For his part, Bennett expressed his condolences, saying that he comes to Washington from Jerusalem with a “new spirit of cooperation.”
Bennett seeks to revive US-Israel relations after Benjamin Netanyahu, during his 15 years in office, has been hostile to Democrats and embraces Republicans.
Nevertheless, on his first official visit abroad, the 49-year-old Israeli prime minister stuck to many of his predecessor’s hardline views.
“We must not be forgotten for one moment that we are in the most difficult spot in the world,” he said, referring to ISIS, Hezbollah and Hamas. “That is why Israel must always remain significantly stronger than all its enemies combined.”
Bennett told reporters after the meeting that he had achieved his goals on his first official visit since taking office in June. He was especially happy to hear Biden say he was adamant that Iran should “never” acquire a nuclear weapon.
Biden had previously said that Tehran would not obtain a nuclear weapon “during my tenure”.
“I found a leader who loves Israel, knows exactly what he wants, and listens to our needs,” Bennett added. A broader meeting is expected to include, in addition to Biden and Bennett, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Israeli National Security Adviser Eyal Holata, Israeli Ambassador to Washington Gilad Erdan and Bennett’s assistant Shemrit Meir.
In the Oval Office, Bennett said the bombings in Kabul highlighted the potential danger of a nuclear Iran. Bennett addressed Biden, saying, “These days reveal what the world would look like if an extremist Islamic regime obtained a nuclear weapon.”
Israel strongly opposes Biden’s attempt to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, from which former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew. Since Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal, Iran has, in turn, abandoned key commitments under it, including uranium enrichment.
Biden stressed that the United States is committed to ensuring that “Iran never develops a nuclear weapon, but we put diplomacy first and we will see where that leads us,” warning, “But if diplomacy fails, we are ready to move to other options.”
Later, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki explained that diplomacy is “by far the best option we have.” For his part, Dan Kurzer, the former US ambassador to Israel, told AFP that Bennett’s visit would establish a new way of dealing, even in light of differences.
“The Netanyahu years, especially with Democratic presidents, were marked by a lot of rancour on the Israeli side and outright disrespect for the presidency,” he added.
On Friday, the two leaders made efforts to show their intimacy, with Bennett telling Biden, “You’ve been very generous with your time in these troubled days.” “I’ve known every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir,” Biden, 78, said, then noted that Bennett used to take the same train that Biden is famous for. “We became good friends. He took the Amtrak train a lot,” he added, referring to the American Railroad Company.