President Biden welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to the White House after a 24-hour delay Friday in a bid to solidify ties with the new leader even as they disagree sharply on whether to resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal.
“It’s an unshakable partnership between our two nations,” Mr. Biden said as he opened talks in the Oval Office.
Mr. Biden hailed Israel‘s performance on COVID-19 vaccination, including a rollout of booster shots, and said the U.S. will start giving out third doses in mid-September.
He also said “the threat from Iran” and the Middle East peace process will lead the discussion.
“We’re also going to discuss ways to advance peace and security and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Bennett, meanwhile, said he expected Iran to dominate the talks.
“Obviously, the main issue we’re going to be talking about today here is Iran‘s race to a nuclear weapon,” he said. “The first goal is to stop Iran on its regional aggression and start rolling it back into the box. And the second is to permanently keep Iran, away from ever being able to break out the nuclear weapon.”
The White House summit was rescheduled from Thursday after bomb blasts in Kabul upended the evacuation operation in Afghanistan.
Mr. Biden on Friday called it a “dangerous” but “worthy” mission, noting that more than 12,000 people had been evacuated from Afghanistan within the last 24 hours.
Mr. Bennett said he understood the need to reschedule.
“We want to extend our condolences and deep sadness for the loss of American lives,” Mr. Bennett said.
The far-right Mr. Bennett, 49, is the son of American immigrants to Israel and spent his early career as a software entrepreneur before entering politics. He is part of a ruling coalition of eight parties, ranging from the far-left to far-right, including a faction representing Israel‘s Arab minority.
Mr. Bennett will be in office for two years before ceding way to Yair Lapid, who will become prime minister in 2023 as part of the rotating government.
A senior Biden administration official described the first face-to-face meeting between the men as “a chance for the prime minister to hear directly from the president his ironclad commitment to Israel‘s security and self-defense.”
Mr. Biden tried to cultivate ties with the prime minister early. He called to congratulate Mr. Bennett within two hours of his swearing-in on June 13 to replace Benjamin Netanyahu, the longtime Israeli leader who enjoyed close ties with former President Donald Trump but had a frosty relationship with Democratic leaders.
“I think that sent a very clear signal of U.S. support for the prime minister and for this new government, which is a truly extraordinarily broad, big-tent coalition, which is steering Israel as we speak,” the senior administration official said of the early call.
Mr. Biden in June hosted outgoing Israel President Reuven Rivlin, promising him that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on his watch.
Mr. Bennett wants Mr. Biden to take a much harder posture toward Iran, Israel‘s archenemy.
“This is the time to stop the Iranians, not to give them a lifeline in the form of reentering an expired nuclear deal,” the prime minister said at a cabinet meeting earlier this week.
Yet the White House has been trying to revive the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal. Senior administration officials said Iran‘s program has been accelerating since the U.S. left the deal and it is a “very serious problem,” but Israeli leaders want to move beyond the deal.
Mr. Bennett told his aides the deal is “no longer relevant, even by the standards of those who once thought that it was,” according to a report by The Times of Israel.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said he had a good conversation with Mr. Bennett late Wednesday.
“We discussed shared challenges: Global terrorism, Iran‘s dangerous aspirations, anti-Semitism & BDS,” he tweeted, using an acronym for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that targets Israel because of its policies toward Palestinians. “Reaffirmed my support for deeper strategic partnership and preserving Israel‘s qualitative military edge & freedom of action. Reaffirmed my support for deeper strategic partnership and preserving Israel‘s qualitative military edge & freedom of action.”
Mr. Bennett also met Wednesday with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Mr. Bennett also reportedly met with Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
• Guy Taylor and Jeff Mordock contributed to this story.