Persistent divisions over Iran do not cool Biden’s warm welcome to Israel

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JERUSALEM – President Biden issued one of the most blunt warnings of his presidency to Tehran on Thursday, pledging to Israel’s leaders that “we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” but Israeli interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid, went further, asking all democratic nations to swear that they will act if the Iranians continue to “develop their nuclear program.”

The distinction between Mr. Biden’s vow to stop a “weapon” and Mr. Lapid’s insistence on destroying Iran’s entire “program” was more than semantic: it goes to the heart of the different approaches to their countries in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Even amid frequent and public affirmations of Israel’s close relationship with the United States, disagreements over how to deal with Iran remain stubborn. Several times on Thursday, members of Israel’s leadership publicly and privately urged the United States to develop a more credible military option to disable Iran’s nuclear facilities as a way to convince Tehran it is embarking on a rapidly accelerating program. must stop.

“If they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force,” Mr Lapid said at the opening of a press conference in Jerusalem after the two leaders met as part of Mr Biden’s four-day visit to the Middle East. †

During those remarks, Mr. Biden listened carefully, but never repeated that promise. Instead, he kept talking about blocking Iran from acquiring a weapon — not a “program” that could be designed to develop one.

But even these long-running differences in strategy are shifting amid fissures in Israel’s own consensus about the imminent and urgent threat of Iran’s nuclear program.

And on Thursday, those differences over Iran’s strategy were largely set aside on the first full day of Mr Biden’s maiden voyage to the Middle East as president, in a region where alliances and relations have changed radically since he came here for the presidency. most recently as Vice President to Barack Obama. president.

On Friday, he moves on to the more arduous task of the trip: trying to revive the alliance with Saudi Arabia, amid sharp criticism, especially from the progressive wing of his own party, that he is rehabilitating a crown prince the CIA believes. that he was aware of, and perhaps complicit in, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based dissident and columnist.

The mission of Mr. Biden was in Jerusalem to strengthen and deepen relations with Israeli leaders while sidestepping a tumultuous election for a new prime minister.

And Mr. Biden used Thursday’s press conference with Mr. Lapid to bolster the thriving relationship between Israel and a handful of Arab states, including establishing a joint air defense zone to protect against Iranian drones and missiles. Government officials say that while they are pushing for full diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, they expect only incremental progress toward that goal during this journey.

But it is Biden’s own relationship with Saudi Arabia that comes to the fore during the second part of his visit. During Thursday’s brief press conference, Biden was immediately urged to raise the case of Khashoggi’s murder when he meets with Saudi leaders on Friday. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is accused of directly condoning the brutal 2018 murder in Istanbul of Mr Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who resided in the United States.

Biden said on Thursday that his views on the assassination were widely known, but he did not say whether he would specifically mention the dissident’s name during his meeting with Prince Mohammed.

“My opinion of Khashoggi was absolutely, positively clear,” Biden said, adding that he had never hesitated to speak openly with allies and opponents about human rights. But since the US leader was scheduled to fly direct from Israel to Jeddah on Friday — a flight that itself says a lot about the changing environment in the Middle East — government officials were still debating how he should address the matter, if at all, in public commentary. raise awareness on Saudi soil.

In other cases, including most recently Cuba and Venezuela, Mr. Biden has emphasized that his administration makes democracy and respect for human rights the most important consideration when dealing with leaders of other nations. But on Thursday he said in Jerusalem: “The reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia is to represent American interests.” Those include getting the kingdom to pump more oil from its somewhat modest reserve capacity.

Mr Biden was clearly in his element in Jerusalem all day. These were the kinds of trips he loved as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later vice president.

Mr. Biden celebrated the signing of a new “Jerusalem Declaration,” a reaffirmation of the solidity of the alliance between the two countries, of US commitments not to allow Iran to obtain a weapon, and of Israel’s rapprochement with many of the Arab opponents who had tried to undermine the creation of a Jewish state.

While little in the statement was new, the fact that it so boldly mentioned the broad outline of the relationship — signed by a Democratic president whom many in Israel viewed with suspicion, and by an acting Israeli prime minister who wanted to make his role permanent — dominated. much of the public discussion in Israel.

On Thursday, Biden received Israel’s presidential medal of honor and, borrowed from the Torah, called Israel “a nation that will never live alone, because as long as there is the United States, you will never be alone.”

Isaac Herzog, the president of Israel, whose policy-making role was to chair the medal ceremony, said government officials had found an account of Biden’s first trip to Israel as a young senator in 1973. During that visit, Mr. Herzog read: Biden’ was carried away by his enthusiasm,” a description that seemed no less apt nearly half a century later.

Later on Thursday, Mr. Biden attended the opening of the Maccabiah Games, a quadrennial international Jewish sports competition.

Mr. Biden spent much of his journey touting common projects between Israel and the United States, starting with the Iron Dome missile intercept system and a new system called Iron Beam, still a prototype, that uses lasers. Mr Biden watched a demonstration as soon as he landed in Israel, setting the tone for the rest of his journey.

“These technologies and developments are critical,” said Mr Biden. “Each missile intercepted is a potential life, maybe more, being saved.”

His commitment to prevent Iran from actually acquiring a nuclear weapon was not new — George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald J. Trump had all made similar vows — but his harsher-sounding language was unusually explicit, including pledges to use military force. use if necessary. (For example, Mr. Obama would avoid outright threats and instead talk about using “all the tools” of US power — financial, diplomatic, and military.)

For several years now, Israel has pursued a policy of repeatedly blowing up facilities and killing leaders of its nuclear program in an effort to slow down Iran’s ability to produce nuclear fuel. That secret program has gained momentum in the past year, and Israeli officials have sometimes referred to it as “mowing the lawn,” an acknowledgment that the Iranians, just as quickly as they blow up elements of the program, are trying to rebuild it.

The United States is following a different track, trying to revive the diplomatic deal with Iran, now seven years old, that Mr Trump has left. That deal required Iran to transport 97 percent of its nuclear fuel out of the country, and many Israeli military and intelligence officials now say they believe Mr Trump’s move to abandon the deal has failed, cutting Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. could resume and accelerate. Mr Biden on Thursday reaffirmed his belief that diplomacy is the only hope for a lasting solution.

For Mr. Lapid, in the presence of the US president, an uncompromising stance on Iran may have been a political necessity in the run-up to the November elections, when he hopes to turn his caretaker status into a full term as prime minister.

For years, Mr. Lapid sought to prevent Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s former prime minister, from outflanking him to the right on security issues, although Mr. Netanyahu Thursday, after meeting Mr. Biden told the president that he “needs a credible offensive military option.”

But the challenge from Mr. lapid for mr. Biden was softened by exuberantly friendly body language, and the session had none of the stinging tension that sometimes characterized Mr. Netanyahu’s Encounters With Mr. Biden when he was vice president. Privately, some Israeli officials say they are focusing more on Iran’s support for terror groups in the Middle East, and that they believe they would have been sufficiently warned if Iran actually proceeded to build a weapon.

Mr Biden seemed to take no offense at Mr Lapid’s public disagreement. Indeed, when Mr. Lapid finished speaking at the press conference, Mr. Biden praised. “An eloquent statement,” he said.

Patrick KingsleyPeter BakkerIsabel Kershner and Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem.



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