Biden adviser meets Netanyahu amid unease over his govt

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, arrives for a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/Pool Photo via AP)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Thursday with U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, the allies’ highest level in-person talks since Israel’s most right-wing government ever took power last month.

Sullivan’s visit comes amid unease in Washington over Netanyahu’s policies and over several members of his ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox governing coalition, which is already taking a hard line against the Palestinians and is expected to ramp up construction in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

A statement from Netanyahu’s office said the two discussed Iran’s nuclear program and ways to broaden normalization agreements reached under the Trump administration with four Arab countries.

“I’ve known President Biden for 40 years as a great friend of Israel,” Netanyahu told Sullivan, according to footage released from the meeting. “We see you as a trusted partner in matters of assuring security and, of course, advancing peace.”

Israel’s new government has already proved a headache for the Biden administration, with extremist Cabinet minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visiting a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site and having adopted punitive steps against the Palestinians that run in direct opposition to several recent Biden moves to boost U.S.-Palestinian relations. Netanyahu told Sullivan the measures were a necessary response to the Palestinians pushing the U.N.’s highest judicial body to give its opinion on the Israeli occupation.

Sullivan told Netanyahu that Biden’s “commitment to the state of Israel is bone deep,” a “commitment that’s rooted in shared history, shared interests and shared values.”

The U.S. has said it will engage with Netanyahu’s government based on its policies and not on personalities, including senior Cabinet ministers who have expressed vehement anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab views in the past.

U.S. officials have previously expressed concerns about at least two far-right Israeli politicians, Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich.

Ben-Gvir, a lawmaker known for anti-Arab vitriol and provocative stunts, is the minister of national security, a powerful position that puts him in charge of Israel’s police force. Meanwhile, Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism party, which shares anti-Palestinian and anti-gay views, has been granted oversight over the Israeli defense body in charge of Palestinian civil affairs.

The Israeli government is also an unwelcome complication for a Biden national security team seeking to shift attention away from the Middle East and toward rivals like China and Russia. It also comes as Republicans take control of the House of Representatives and are eager to cast Biden as unfriendly to Israel ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Sullivan also met with senior Israeli security officials, including the head of the Mossad. He met the country’s ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, on Wednesday.

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