Meeting Blinken, Israel’s Top Diplomat Aims to Fix Netanyahu ‘Mistakes’

ROME — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met Sunday with Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, as the Biden administration takes the...


ROME — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met Sunday with Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, as the Biden administration takes the measure of Israel’s new government after the departure of the country’s divisive prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The two men discussed Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and the international talks seeking to return Iran and the United States to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, about which Mr. Lapid said Israel had “serious reservations.”

But Mr. Lapid took a warm tone overall in brief remarks at the start of his meeting with Mr. Blinken, their first since Israel’s new government took power on June 13, saying he hoped to repair damage incurred under Mr. Netanyahu to Israel’s standing among Washington Democrats.

“In the past few years, mistakes were made,” Mr. Lapid said. “Israel’s bipartisan standing was hurt. We will fix those mistakes together.”

Speaking of differences over Iran, perhaps the main source of tensions between Democrats and Mr. Netanyahu, he added, “We believe the way to discuss those disagreements is through direct and professional conversation, not a press conference.”

“As the closest of friends do, we will have occasional differences,” Mr. Blinken responded. “We have the same objectives. Sometimes we differ on the tactics.”

It was not the first time that Mr. Lapid had called for mending relations with a Democratic Party that now controls Congress and the White House. After his swearing-in this month, he acknowledged that many Democrats were “angry” at Israel and said, “We need to change the way we work with them.”

Mr. Lapid represents only part of his country’s patchwork governing coalition, however, and he does not necessarily speak for its more conservative prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who shares many of Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing views.

Mr. Bennett assumed office this month on a bellicose note when it comes to Iran, declaring that work to repair the 2015 nuclear deal “is a mistake that will once again give legitimacy to one of the most violent, darkest regimes in the world.”

Under the agreement, world powers lifted sanctions on Tehran in return for time-limited restrictions on its nuclear program.

Mr. Bennett added, “Israel is not a party to the deal, and will maintain total freedom of action.”

Steven Simon, who served as the National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama White House, said the rifts that emerged between Democrats and Mr. Netanyahu — fueled by his enthusiastic embrace of President Donald J. Trump — would not be smoothed over easily by a change of faces in Israel’s leadership.

“There are fundamental differences that have emerged in the relationship that will be difficult to reverse, especially as American politics becomes increasingly polarized,” said Mr. Simon, now a professor of international relations at Colby College. “I think it will be hard under foreseeable circumstances for Israel to recapture the wall-to-wall loyalty of the Democratic Party.”

Last week, 73 House Democrats signed a letter calling on President Biden to do more to reverse key elements of what they called Mr. Trump’s “abandonment of longstanding, bipartisan U.S. policy” toward Israel and the Palestinians. That included the formal withdrawal of Mr. Trump’s plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and the rescinding of a State Department legal opinion that called Israeli settlements “inconsistent with international law.”

Mr. Blinken met Mr. Lapid last month in Israel following the cease-fire that ended a 10-day conflict between Israel and Gaza-based Hamas set off by violence within Israel between Arabs and Jews.

During their meeting, Mr. Blinken reiterated American concerns to Mr. Lapid about specific Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, including the demolition of Palestinian homes in Jerusalem to make way for new Jewish settlements and Israel’s management of the Temple Mount, which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and which is home to the sacred Al Aqsa Mosque.

Mr. Blinken also urged Mr. Lapid to find ways to accelerate slow-moving humanitarian and reconstruction aid into Gaza, which was severely damaged during the May conflict. Israeli and U.S. officials say that the militants of Hamas, with whom they refuse to work directly, have made that process more difficult.

The May 20 cease-fire was tested this month when Israel’s government, days after assuming power, conducted airstrikes in Gaza after incendiary balloons floated into southern Israel from the isolated Palestinian territory.

Seeing no real prospect of a peace agreement in the foreseeable future, Mr. Biden has made no effort to restart an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which effectively died during the Trump administration.

Mr. Blinken said the U.S. “strongly” supports normalization agreements, brokered at the end of the Trump administration and known as the Abraham Accords, that Israel struck with several Arab states, and said he hoped they could be expanded to more nations.

But he added that “as vital as they are, they are not a substitute for engaging on the issues between Israelis and Palestinians that need to be resolved.”

Mr. Lapid has become something of an Israeli envoy to leading Democrats. He spoke by phone this past week with Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

Also on Sunday, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Gilad Erdan, who was appointed by Mr. Netanyahu this year, notified Mr. Bennett that he would step down once a replacement has been named or when his planned term expires in November. Mr. Erdan, a Netanyahu ally, intends to continue in his other role as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Rome is the third stop on a weeklong trip by Mr. Blinken to Western Europe, following meetings with government leaders in Germany and Paris. Both France and Germany effusively welcomed Mr. Biden’s top diplomat, displaying palpable relief at the end of the Trump era.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Meeting Blinken, Israel’s Top Diplomat Aims to Fix Netanyahu ‘Mistakes’
Meeting Blinken, Israel’s Top Diplomat Aims to Fix Netanyahu ‘Mistakes’
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