Israeli PM travels to Washington on first foreign trip

Naftali Bennett will meet US President Joe Biden on Thursday

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett arrives in Washington late on Tuesday for the first foreign tour of his premiership, with Iran set to top the agenda in talks with US President Joe Biden.

The visit comes as the new Israeli administration attempts to mend ties with the Democratic leadership that were strained during the tenure of Israel's last prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Bennett is expected to adopt a more conciliatory tone than his predecessor in Washington, while pressing the same foreign policy line of firm opposition to Tehran.

“We will deal with many fronts, especially the Iranian front, and especially the jump in the Iranian nuclear programme over the past two or three years. In particular, we will discuss the plan to block this programme,” the Israeli prime minister said, before his departure on Tuesday.

Since entering office in January, Mr Biden has sought to revive the nuclear accord which Iran signed with world powers in 2015.

The deal with Tehran all but collapsed in 2018 with the withdrawal of US during the presidency of Donald Trump. Efforts to resume talks have stalled in recent weeks following the election of hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

Orna Mizrahi, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said the Iranian issue would be “the centre of the visit”.

“The approach will be that we must have a dialogue with the Americans and not confront the administration. We have to reach a common agreement and understanding about how to deal with Iran,” said Ms Mizrahi, who previously advised the prime minister’s office on foreign policy.

Mr Bennett’s arrival in Washington follows his meeting earlier this month with CIA chief William Burns, who travelled to Jerusalem following an attack on an Israeli-managed tanker in the Gulf.

The two countries blamed Iran for the incident on July 29, in which two crew members were killed.

Security concerns closer to home will also be on the agenda in Washington, three months after Israel and Gaza rulers Hamas fought an 11-day war.

Violence around the Palestinian coastal enclave has increased over the past few days, with the Israeli military launching air strikes on Gaza following a rally at the border fence on Saturday.

Forty-one Palestinians and an Israeli sniper were wounded at the protest, according to officials.

The military said it struck Hamas targets again on Tuesday, after incendiary devices were flown over the fence from Gaza and sparked fires in Israel. Following the strikes, Hamas-backed activists in the strip launched another wave of flaming balloons.

The two leaders are expected to discuss Gaza and more broadly “efforts to advance peace, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians,” the White House said last week.

In recent months the US administration has resumed funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, and is pushing to reopen its consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem which was closed by Mr Trump.

The latter move is opposed by nationalist leader Mr Bennett, who came into office in June and is unlikely to make significant concessions regarding the Palestinians.

But both leaders will be keen to avoid public disagreements which could distract from more pressing issues.

Mr Bennett’s government is grappling with rising coronavirus cases, while in Washington the president is facing mounting criticism over the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Updated: August 24th 2021, 4:45 PM