President Joe Biden sought to assure Israel that he would not tolerate a nuclear Iran as he met with outgoing Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Monday amid a major shakeup in Israeli politics and growing angst in Tel Aviv over the U.S. administration’s effort to reenter the Iran nuclear deal.
Biden noted that he had ordered airstrikes a day earlier targeting facilities the U.S. military says were used by Iran-backed militia groups near the border between Iraq and Syria. The rhetoric seemed to underscore that he would remain tough on malign Iran activity even as he seeks a diplomatic track to stem Tehran’s nuclear program.
“What I can say to you is that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch,” Biden said at the White House meeting.
The meeting with Rivlin, who is making his final foreign trip of his presidency, took place just weeks after Naftali Bennett became Israel’s new prime minister, replacing Benjamin Netanyahu. The Biden administration, meanwhile, has intensified efforts to revive Iran’s 2015 accord with world powers to limit Tehran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. Former President Donald Trump, with Netanyahu’s backing, scrapped the accord in 2018.
Biden said he hoped to meet the new prime minister at the White House “very soon.”
Rivlin is set to leave office on July 7 after a seven-year term. Isaac Herzog, a former parliament member who most recently headed a nonprofit that works closely with the government to promote immigration to Israel, will take over as Israeli president.
Rivlin met later Monday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Both leaders stressed the friendship between their countries, although Rivlin noted disagreements as well.
Biden said he and the Israeli president would talk about Iran and the aftermath of the Gaza war. The president also underscored his support for continued normalization of relations between Israel and countries in the Arab and Muslim world and planned to reiterate the administration’s promise to resupply Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which was depleted during the 11-day war with Hamas in Gaza.
The latest conflict claimed at least 254 Palestinian lives and killed 13 people in Israel.
Biden has low hopes, at least for the moment, of reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, according to an official familiar with Biden administration deliberations. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said Biden administration officials are starting at square one in building contacts with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, a relationship that eroded during the Trump administration.
The meeting with Rivlin comes one day after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in Rome with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, a centrist who along with Bennett and six other political allies built a fragile coalition government that put Netanyahu in the opposition.
Aviv Kochavi, chief of staff of Israel Defense Forces, met last week with Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and other senior national security officials. Kochavi reiterated Israel’s opposition to efforts by the Biden administration to revive the 2015 accord.
Administration officials, however, have countered in talks with Kochavi and others in the new Israeli government that it’s worth giving diplomacy a shot at stopping Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapons system, even if it’s not guaranteed, the official said.