Joe Biden’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was pushed back a day Thursday as the US president cleared his agenda to address bombings in Kabul.
“The president’s bilateral meeting… has been rescheduled for tomorrow,” the White House said. The two leaders had been due to meet at 11:30 am (1530 GMT) Thursday.
Bennett hopes to reboot ties with the Democratic administration after his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu’s tempestuous and polarizing 12 years in office.
However, the crisis in Afghanistan loomed over their meeting even before the bombings tore through Kabul, causing multiple casualties and the deaths of at least 12 US troops.
Bennett extended his condolences in a statement Thursday, saying “on behalf of the people of Israel, I share our deep sadness over the loss of American lives in Kabul. Israel stands with the United States in these difficult times, just as America has always stood with us.”
Bennett, 49, is on his first state visit since taking office in June as head of an ideologically-divided coalition in which his hawkish party holds only a handful of seats. He promised “a new spirit of cooperation” from Israel.
Bennett had intended to say Israel was concerned about a potential withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Syria because of possible future instability, a senior Israeli official said.
The request gained added weight against the deadly Kabul bombings amid the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
However, Bennett’s staff said he did not plan to give his opinions on the events there.
“We didn’t come here to comment, we came to encourage,” another source in his delegation said. “I think the Americans appreciate that a lot.”
Instead, Bennett was planning to make Iran the focus of his visit, telling US Secretary of State Antony Blinken he wanted to address “how do we fend off and curtail Iran’s pursuit to dominate the region and its race to a nuclear weapon.”
Israel fiercely opposes Biden’s attempt to reverse Trump’s withdrawal from a 2015 nuclear deal that lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
Since Trump’s move, Iran has itself withdrawn from key commitments, including on uranium enrichment.
US officials did not address the Iran deal directly Wednesday.
Blinken, however, told Bennett US commitment to Israel’s security is “unshakeable,” and touched on “deep concerns we share about Iran” and its nuclear program.
Two states ‘not relevant’
Bennett and Biden differ on key issues concerning the Palestinians. Bennett has said he will not stop construction in settlements and opposes creating a Palestinian state in territories Israel captured in 1967, both positions at odds with Washington.
“Two states is not relevant, not existent,” the source in his delegation said.
Biden’s administration has restored hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians, much of which was cut by Trump, who described himself as the most “pro-Israel” president in history.
Friction between Israel and Gaza escalated during Bennett’s visit, including violent border clashes.
It was the most serious deterioration since Israel pounded Gaza with air strikes in response to thousands of rockets fired by militants in the territory in May.
Dan Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel, told AFP Bennett’s visit would set a new tone even during disagreements.
With Bennett, “even if there are differences on policy, which there will be, the two will be able to talk without this overlay of disrespect.”
The two leaders will now meet at the White House Friday morning, Bennett’s office said. They will first talk one-on-one, then make statements to the press and then continue negotiations with the participation of their staffs.
Bennett’s office said Biden called him and thanked him for showing “understanding” about the postponement.
The Israeli prime minister offered “deep condolences,” telling Biden that Israel “stands at your side in this difficult hour as the USA has stood by Israel throughout the years,” according to Bennett’s office.