ROME – Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken met with Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Sunday as the Biden government measures Israel’s new government following the departure of the country’s divisive Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The two men discussed Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians and the international talks aimed at bringing Iran and the United States back to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, against which Mr. Lapid said Israel had “serious reservations”.
But Mr Lapid, in brief remarks at the beginning of his meeting with Mr Blinken, the first since the new Israeli government came to power on June 13, adopted an overall warm tone, saying that he hoped to undermine the damage done to Israel’s reputation under Mr Netanyahu to make amends to the people of Washington Democrats.
“Mistakes have been made in the past few years,” said Lapid. “Israel’s bipartisan reputation was violated. We will fix these errors together. “
Regarding differences over Iran, which may be the main source of tension between the Democrats and Netanyahu, he added, “We believe that these differences can be addressed through face-to-face and professional discussions rather than a press conference.”
“Like closest friends, we will occasionally have disagreements,” replied Mr Blinken. “We have the same goals. Sometimes we differ in tactics. “
It was not the first time that Mr Lapid called for improved relations with a Democratic Party that now controls Congress and the White House. After being sworn in earlier this month, he admitted that many Democrats were “angry” with Israel and said, “We need to change the way we work with them.”
However, Mr Lapid represents only part of his country’s patchwork governing coalition, and he does not necessarily speak for the more conservative Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who shares many of Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing views.
Mr Bennett took office this month with bellicose intentions over Iran, declaring that working to repair the 2015 nuclear deal “is a mistake that will restore legitimacy to one of the most violent and darkest regimes in the world “.
As part of the agreement, the world powers lifted sanctions against Tehran in exchange for temporary restrictions on its nuclear program.
Mr. Bennett added, “Israel is not a party to the agreement and will retain total freedom of action.”
Steven Simon, who served as senior director of the National Security Council for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama White House, said the rifts that were created between the Democrats and Mr Netanyahu – fueled by his enthusiastic embrace from President Donald J. Trump – would not be easily smoothed out by a change of face in the Israeli leadership.
“Fundamental differences have emerged in relationships that are difficult to undo, especially as American politics become increasingly polarized,” said Simon, now professor of international relations at Colby College. “I think, under foreseeable circumstances, it will be difficult for Israel to regain the loyalty of the Democratic Party on all sides.”
Last week, 73 House Democrats signed a letter calling on President Biden to do more to undo key elements of Trump’s “abandonment of longstanding, bipartisan US policy” towards Israel and the Palestinians. This included the formal withdrawal of Mr. Trump’s plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and the repeal of a legal opinion by the State Department that identified Israeli settlements as “incompatible with international law.”
Mr Blinken met Mr Lapid in Israel last month following the ceasefire that ended a ten-day conflict between Israel and Gaza-based Hamas, sparked by violence within Israel between Arabs and Jews.
During their meeting, Mr. Blinken reiterated to Mr. Lapid American concerns about specific Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, including the demolition of Palestinian houses in Jerusalem to make way for new Jewish settlements and the Israeli administration of the Temple Mount, which Muslims call the nobles Sanctuary and houses the sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Mr Blinken also urged Mr Lapid to find ways to accelerate the slow-moving humanitarian and reconstruction aid to the Gaza Strip, which was badly damaged during the May conflict. Israeli and US officials say Hamas militants, with whom they refuse to cooperate directly, made this process difficult.
The May 20 ceasefire was put to the test this month when the Israeli government launched air strikes in Gaza days after taking power after arson balloons flew from isolated Palestinian territory to southern Israel.
Seeing no real prospect of a peace deal in the foreseeable future, Mr Biden has made no effort to resume an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that de facto died during the Trump administration.
Mr Blinken said the US “strongly supports” normalization agreements negotiated at the end of the Trump administration, known as the Abraham Accords, which Israel made with several Arab states, and said he hoped they would be extended to more nations could.
But he added that “as important as they are, they are no substitute for addressing the problems between Israelis and Palestinians that need to be resolved.”
Mr. Lapid has become something of an Israeli envoy for leading Democrats. He spoke by phone last week with Senator Chuck Schumer, Majority Leader, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Also on Sunday, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Gilad Erdan, who was appointed by Mr. Netanyahu this year, informed Mr. Bennett that he would step down as soon as a successor is named or his proposed term expires in November. Mr. Erdan, an ally of Netanyahu, intends to continue his other role as Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.
After meetings with heads of government in Germany and Paris, Rome is the third stop on Mr Blinken’s week-long trip to Western Europe. Both France and Germany greeted Mr Biden’s top diplomat effusively and showed palpable relief at the end of the Trump era.