Biden to visit Israel as Iran deal and Jerusalem tensions rise

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Joe Biden accepted an invitation to visit Israel amid differences between the allies over how best to contain Iran and the White House’s concern over mounting Israeli-Palestinian tensions in Jerusalem.

A White House statement issued after Biden spoke with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on a phone call on Sunday  emphasized how close and friendly their relations are, a contrast to the years of tension and bitterness between Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. Democrats.

“The two leaders emphasized the strong personal bond they have developed since the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington last summer,” the White House statement said. “This personal relationship has animated the work of our diplomatic and national security teams, enabling both countries to arrive at common positions on difficult matters.”

Still, both the White House and Israeli statements alluded to areas of disagreement. In his own statement, Bennett warned Biden not to accede to Iranian demands to remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps from the U.S. designated terrorist list. Biden is said to be opposed to delisting the IRGC, but Iran is holding out for delisting as a condition for the U.S. reentry into the Iran nuclear deal, a key Biden foreign policy objective.

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“I am sure that President Biden, who is a true friend of Israel and cares about its security, will not allow the IRGC to be removed from the list of terrorist organizations,” Bennett said in his statement. “Israel has clarified its position on the issue: The IRGC is the largest terrorist organization in the world.”

The visit, which both offices said would happen within months, comes at a time when both leaders face political pressures: Biden is unpopular and Democrats might lose one or both chambers in Congress in the midterm elections. Bennett leads a coalition that now controls just 60 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, after a coalition member defected earlier this month.

The White House statement referred to recent tensions in Jerusalem over the Temple Mount, the holy site that has been a flashpoint for police clashes throughout the Muslim holiday month of Ramadan.

“The President took note of ongoing efforts between Israeli and Palestinian officials to lower tensions and ensure a peaceful conclusion to the holy season of Ramadan,” the White House statement said.

Biden also recommitted to full-fledged defense assistance to Israel, at a time when an increasing number of progressive Democrats are calling for some level of restriction on assistance to Israel.

Biden “affirmed his unwavering support for Israel and its defense needs, and welcomed the historic $1 billion allocation to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome system,” the statement said, referring to money Israel asked for to replenish stores of the antimissile system depleted during last year’s Gaza conflict.


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