JERUSALEM – President Biden on Thursday issued one of the strongest warnings to Tehran about his presidency, pledging to Israel’s leaders that “we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” but acting Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid He pushed further, calling on all democratic nations to commit to action if the Iranians continue to “develop their nuclear program.”
The distinction between Biden’s promise to stop a “weapon” and Lapid’s insistence on destroying Iran’s entire “program” was more than semantic: it goes to the heart of their countries’ differing approaches to dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. .
Even amid frequent public affirmations of the close relationship between Israel and the United States, differences over how to handle Iran remain persistent. Several times on Thursday, members of Israel’s leadership urged in public and private that the United States develop a more credible military option to eliminate Iran’s nuclear facilities, as a way to convince Tehran that it must stop a program that is accelerating. quickly.
“If they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force,” Lapid said at the opening of a news conference in Jerusalem after the two leaders met as part of Biden’s four-day visit to the Middle East. .
During those comments, Mr. Biden listened carefully but never repeated that commitment. Instead, he limited himself to talking about preventing Iran from obtaining a weapon, not a “program” that it might intend to develop one.
But even these longstanding differences in strategy are changing, amid cracks in Israel’s own consensus about how imminent and urgent the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program is.
And on Thursday, those differences over Iran strategy were largely set aside on the first full day of Biden’s first trip to the Middle East as president, in a region where alliances and relationships have changed radically since he last met. he was here as Barack Obama’s vice president. President.
On Friday he moves on to the most difficult task of the trip: trying to revive the alliance with Saudi Arabia, amid strong criticism, especially from the progressive wing of his own party, that he is rehabilitating a crown prince whom the CIA believes was informed and perhaps complicit in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based dissident and columnist.
Mr. Biden’s mission in Jerusalem was to strengthen and deepen the relationship with Israeli leaders as he navigated a tumultuous election for a new prime minister.
And Biden used Thursday’s press conference with Lapid to bolster the burgeoning relationship between Israel and a handful of Arab states, including creating a joint air defense zone to guard against Iranian drones and missiles. Administration officials say that while they are pushing for full diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, they expect only gradual progress toward that goal on this trip.
But it is Mr. Biden’s own relationship with Saudi Arabia that looms most over the second part of his visit. At Thursday’s brief press conference, Biden was directly pressed on whether he would raise the Khashoggi murder case when he meets with Saudi leaders on Friday. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is accused of directly approving the brutal murder in Istanbul in 2018 of Mr. Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who was living in the United States.
Biden said Thursday that his views on the assassination were well known, but stopped short of saying whether he would specifically mention the dissident’s name during his meeting with Prince Mohammed.
“My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely, positively clear,” Biden said, adding that he never hesitated to speak openly with allies and adversaries about human rights. But with the American leader scheduled to fly directly from Israel to Jeddah on Friday, a flight that in itself speaks volumes about the changing environment in the Middle East, administration officials were still debating how, if at all, he should raise the case in public comment. on Saudi soil.
In other cases, including recently in Cuba and Venezuela, Mr. Biden has emphasized that his administration is making democracy and respect for human rights the paramount consideration in dealing with the leaders of other nations. But on Thursday in Jerusalem he said that “the reason I am going to Saudi Arabia is to advance the interests of the United States.” Those include making the kingdom pump more oil than its modest available capacity.
Mr. Biden was clearly in his element all day in Jerusalem. These were the kinds of trips he loved as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later as vice president.
Mr. Biden welcomed the signing of a new “Jerusalem Declaration,” a reaffirmation of the strength of the alliance between the two countries, of US commitments not to allow Iran to obtain a weapon, and of Israel’s rapprochement with many of the Arab adversaries who had tried to undermine the creation of a Jewish state.
While little in the statement was new, the fact that it so boldly laid out the outlines of the relationship, signed by a Democratic president viewed with suspicion by many in Israel, and by an interim Israeli prime minister who sought to make his role was permanent, domino. much of the public discussion in Israel.
On Thursday, Biden received Israel’s Presidential Medal of Honor and, borrowing from the Torah, called Israel “a nation that will never live alone, because as long as there is America you will never be alone.”
Presiding over the medal ceremony, Isaac Herzog, Israel’s president, whose role in policymaking is limited, said government officials had found a record of Biden’s first trip to Israel as a young senator in 1973. During that visit, Herzog read: Biden “was carried away by his enthusiasm,” a description that seemed no less apt almost half a century later.
Later Thursday, Mr. Biden attended the opening of the Maccabiah Games, a quadrennial Jewish international sports competition.
Biden spent much of his trip promoting common projects between Israel and the United States, beginning with the Iron Dome rocket interception system and a new system called Iron Beam, still in prototype, that uses lasers. Mr. Biden saw a rally as soon as he landed in Israel, setting the tone for the rest of his trip.
“These technologies and advancements are critical,” Biden said. “Each rocket intercepted is a potential life, maybe more, saved.”
His commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon was not new: George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump had all made similar promises, but his harshest language was unusually explicit, including a promise to use military force. if necessary. (Obama, for example, would avoid direct threats and instead speak of employing “all instruments” of American power: financial, diplomatic, and military.)
Israel has for several years pursued a policy of repeatedly blowing up facilities and assassinating nuclear program leaders in an effort to reduce Iran’s ability to produce nuclear fuel. That covert program has accelerated in the past year, and Israeli officials have sometimes called it “mowing the lawn,” an acknowledgment that as fast as they blow up elements of the program, the Iranians are trying to rebuild.
The United States is following a different path, trying to revive the now seven-year-old diplomatic deal with Iran that Trump abandoned. That deal required Iran to send 97 percent of its nuclear fuel out of the country, and many Israeli military and intelligence officials say they now believe Trump’s decision to leave the deal backfired, allowing Iran to resume and accelerate its nuclear enrichment program. Biden on Thursday reaffirmed his belief that diplomacy offers the only hope for a lasting solution.
For Lapid, taking a hard-line stance on Iran in the presence of the US president may have been a political imperative ahead of the November election, when he hopes to turn his interim status into a full term as prime minister.
For years, Lapid has worked hard to prevent Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s former prime minister, from outflanking him to the right on security issues, though on Thursday Netanyahu, after meeting with Biden, said he told the president “an offensive credible”. the military option is needed.”
But Lapid’s challenge to Biden was softened by exuberantly friendly body language, and the session lacked the bristling tension that sometimes marked Netanyahu’s meetings with Biden when he was vice president. Privately, some Israeli officials say they are focusing more on Iran’s support for terror groups in the Middle East, and that they believe they would have plenty of warning if Iran actually moved to build a weapon.
Biden did not appear offended by Lapid’s public disagreement. In fact, when Mr. Lapid finished speaking at the press conference, Mr. Biden praised. “An eloquent statement,” he said.
Patrick Kingsley, pedro baker, Elizabeth Kershner Y Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem.