Israel's new FM tells US of Iran concerns but promises to work together

Israel’s foreign minister on Sunday voiced concern over US diplomacy with Iran but promised a less confrontational approach in the new government’s first high-level talks with the Jewish state’s closest ally.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, a centrist who masterminded a coalition that this month unseated veteran right-wing leader Benjamin Netanyahu, flew to Rome to meet Secretary of State Antony Blinken who is on a European tour.

Lapid said that the new administrations in both Israel and the United States had a chance for a new start — but made clear his worries about President Joe Biden’s push to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.

“Israel has some serious reservations about the Iran nuclear deal that is being put together in Vienna,” Lapid said as he opened talks with Blinken at a hotel in the Italian capital.

“We believe the way to discuss those disagreements is though direct and professional conversations, not in press conferences,” he said.

Lapid did not mention Netanyahu by name but was drawing a clear contrast with the former Israeli leader, who openly rallied the US Republican Party against the Iran deal as former president Barack Obama negotiated it in 2015.

“In the past few years mistakes were made,” Lapid said, regretting that once-robust bipartisan support for Israel in the United States had dissipated.

“We will fix those mistakes together,” he said.

The United States has been holding indirect talks with Iran led by European allies in Vienna in the hope of rejoining the deal that was trashed by former president Donald Trump.

Biden and Blinken argue that the agreement was working, as Iran had drastically scaled back its sensitive nuclear work, until Trump withdrew and imposed sweeping sanctions in 2018.

Israel has pressed for a more hawkish approach, seeing the clerical state in Tehran as its primary enemy, including through its support of militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

– New mood of cooperation –

Blinken hailed the remarks by Lapid, saying that the United States was committed to “working closely” with the new government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a hardliner who leads a motley coalition united in the desire to oust Netanyahu.

“As the closest of friends do, we will have occasional differences,” Blinken said.

“We have the same objectives. Sometimes we differ on the tactics,” Blinken said.

Blinken said he would speak to Lapid about the need for reconstruction aid in the Gaza Strip, which was already impoverished and again ravaged in a conflict with Israel last month.

Biden and Blinken are also eager to preserve a fragile ceasefire that took effect on May 21 between Israel and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, after the worst fighting since 2014.

The bloodshed triggered some of the strongest criticism of Israel in memory in the US Congress, with some members of Biden’s Democratic Party accusing Netanyahu of excessive force and of triggering the crisis by backing far-right Jewish groups that want to change the delicate status quo in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Netanyahu has already pounced on Lapid’s interactions with Blinken, recently posting a video in English on social media calling the new government “so dangerous” and speaking of how he as premier would sometimes not inform the United States of pending Israeli actions.

– Modest goals –

With tensions still high after last month’s violence, a coalition getting its bearings in Israel and political uncertainties lingering within the Palestinian Authority, the Biden administration has made clear it is not rushing to make any grand Middle East peace initiatives.

Blinken, speaking in Paris on Friday at a forum on the youth-oriented Brut network, said it was critical to “avoid provocations and incidents over the coming days, weeks and months that could reignite the violence and then to work to create a bit more confidence between the Israelis and Palestinians.”

The hope is that “there can be conditions, which do not currently exist, to allow perhaps a relaunch of the peace process and the establishment of two states, Israel and Palestine,” Blinken said.

“I don’t think the conditions are there yet. We have to work on them and we will.” 

The Biden administration has hoped to be less involved in Middle East hotspots and to repair rifts created under Trump with European allies as part of a strategy to focus long-term attention on managing the rise of China.

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