US President Joe Biden (Photo: Bloomberg)

Biden to face pressure on Iran nuclear deal in meeting with Israel’s Bennett


Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is set to meet President Biden for the first time Thursday at the White House, where he is expected to make the case that Washington should back off from reviving a deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear program.

Mr. Bennett made Iran the focal point in his preparations for the visit, where he hopes to reset Israel’s relations with the U.S. after his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu’s close relationship with former President Donald Trump. He has said he would present Mr. Biden with an alternative plan to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which Tehran says are aimed at creating a nuclear power industry, and limit Iran’s growing influence across the Middle East in the wake of several drone attacks the West has blamed on the Islamic Republic.

On Wednesday, Mr. Bennett held his first meeting with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in talks that focused on Middle East security, in particular Iran.

“Prime Minister Bennett stressed that…Israel will continue to insist on its right to maintain security supremacy in the Middle East,” a statement from the Israeli leader’s office said following the talks.

The 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran, the U.S. and other world powers provides Tehran relief from sanctions in return for limiting the scope of its nuclear program. The Trump administration pulled out of the pact in 2018, reimposing sanctions that have hobbled the Iranian economy.

Since entering the White House, the Biden administration has tried to revive the deal in the face of Israel’s objections. Talks have stalled since April, breaking off in June, while Iran has increased the purity levels to which it can enrich its uranium stockpile.

Israel says Tehran has no interest in returning to the confines of the 2015 deal, and Iran is two months away from being able to produce weapons-grade uranium. Like Mr. Netanyahu’s government, Mr. Bennett’s administration says the pact delayed rather ended Iran’s progress toward obtaining nuclear weapons. It also argues that any new deal should limit Iran’s military reach in the region, where Iran-backed militias exert considerable sway.

Mr. Netanyahu waged a public campaign opposing the Obama administration-led Iran nuclear deal, famously attacking it in a speech before Congress. Mr. Bennett and officials in his government say they want to change course by working more closely with the U.S., rather than trying to influence the talks from the outside.

In the days leading up to Mr. Bennett’s visit to Washington, Israeli security officials have emphasized that Israel is updating its plans and operational capabilities needed to independently take military action against Iran if the international community fails to limit the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, speaking to diplomats earlier in the week, tried to drive home Israel’s concerns over Iran, adding that Israeli intelligence had determined that a drone that attacked an Israeli-linked tanker off the coast of Oman in late July took off from Iran.

“All of Iran’s acts of aggression thus far have been conducted without nuclear capabilities. Imagine what will happen if Iran achieves nuclear capabilities,” Mr. Gantz said.

Analysts said Mr. Biden’s chief objective in the meeting will likely be to assure one of Washington’s staunchest allies that the U.S. is an able and reliable partner in the Middle East amid the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, while both sides will likely tread lightly on the Palestinian issue.

On Wednesday, hundreds of Palestinian protesters in Gaza demonstrated against Israel’s ongoing blockade on the Hamas-governed territory. As Israeli troops tried to disperse protesters gathered near a security fence, 21 Palestinians were injured by tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds.

Any pressure from the U.S. to change tack toward the Palestinians could lay bare the fractures in the ruling coalition that joins Mr. Bennett’s and other right-wing parties with leftist and Arab parties that have openly advocated for the creation of a Palestinian state.

“Bennett knows he has little to gain from talking about Palestinians with Biden, especially considering Bennett has a fragile coalition at home and wants to remain loyal to a right-wing Israeli base,” said Mairav Zonszein, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

The Israeli prime minister, who came to power only two months ago, has embarked on the two-day visit with plans to reset relations that were long defined by the personal chemistry between Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu. He says his style will mark a split from his predecessor, who was criticized at home and abroad for appearing to take sides with Republicans over Democrats.

“I bring from Israel a new spirit, a spirit of folks who sometimes harbor different opinions but work together in cooperation,” said Mr. Bennett during a meeting Wednesday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

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