Officials from the United States and Israel met by video conference Thursday to discuss the two countries’ security challenges in the Middle East, as well as the Biden administration’s plan to re-engage diplomacy with Iran on nuclear weapons.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, took part in the first US-Israel bilateral security meeting since President Joe Biden took office in January.
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It came as the Biden administration was seeking a return to a 2015 nuclear deal that saw Iran agree to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions.
“It’s vital to the president, to the administration that as we are looking ahead to approaching diplomacy and moving toward a diplomatic track to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon” that Israel be briefed on the plans, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
Israel for years has criticised and sought to derail that international accord, from which former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 in favour of his administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy against the Iranian government.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had campaigned against the 2015 United Nations-backed agreement, recently hinted that Israel might resort to military action against Iran, The Associated Press reported.
“We are not pinning our hopes on any agreement with an extremist regime such as yours,” Netanyahu said in a recent speech directed at Iran. “With or without agreements – we will do everything so that you will not arm yourselves with nuclear weapons.”
Senior Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz, have said Israel is upgrading contingency plans to attack Iran if it appears to be escalating its nuclear activities.
Psaki said Biden is committed to “a diplomatic path” with Iran and administration officials believe earlier Israeli opposition to diplomacy had “quieted a bit” after Iran demonstrated – while the deal was still in effect – that it was complying with limits imposed on its enrichment of uranium.
“There was a recognition of the benefit of visibility on the ground. We don’t have that now. We haven’t had it since the Trump administration pulled out of the deal,” Psaki said.
“We are very familiar with the concerns Israel has expressed and that’s one of the reasons we engage them so closely around this and many other issues,” she said.
While the US and Israel have been staunch allies for decades, the bilateral relationship reached new heights under Trump.
After withdrawing from the nuclear agreement negotiated under his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, Trump imposed punishing economic sanctions on Iran. He moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognised Israel’s occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights, and cut funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
While Biden has said he plans to restore funding to Palestinians, he has no plans to return the US embassy to Tel Aviv and is supportive of the Abraham Accords normalisation agreements brokered by Trump between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
Palestinians rejected the Abraham Accords as a betrayal. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the Biden administration plans to review some of the incentives and arms deals offered by Trump as part of the agreements.
Blinken told US legislators on Wednesday that Biden is committed to consulting with Israel and Arab nations, “regarding anything that we might do going forward on [the Iran nuclear agreement]”, according to the Associated Press.