Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting, as Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid looks on, in Jerusalem, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. AP
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett departed Tuesday for his first state visit overseas since taking office, a two-day trip to Washington to meet with President Joe Biden and discuss regional rival Iran.
The newly minted prime minister's visit to Washington will come in the midst of heightened tensions between Israel and its regional arch-enemy, Iran. Israel is also grappling with a gradual resurgence of hostilities on its southern border with the Gaza Strip, barely three months after an 11-day war with Islamist militant group Hamas.
Bennett was scheduled to meet Wednesday with senior White House officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and on Thursday with President Biden during his two-day snap visit.
In a statement released by the Prime Minister's Office before his departure, Bennett said the top priority in his conversation with Biden would be Iran, ``especially the leapfrogging in the past two to three years in the Iranian nuclear program.'' He said other issues would also be discussed, including the Israeli military's qualitative edge, the coronavirus pandemic and economic matters.
Bennett has spoken out against the possibility of a new nuclear accord between Iran and world powers, and says that any agreement must also put the brakes on Iran's regional aggression. Recent months have seen a string of attacks on Israeli-connected shipping, believed to have been carried out by Iran.
Earlier this week, Bennett told his Cabinet that he would tell the president ``that now is the time to halt the Iranians, to stop this thing'' and not re-enter ``a nuclear deal that has already expired and is not relevant, even to those who thought it was once relevant.``
Bennett's departure also came as friction between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers was building. Indirect negotiations between the two sides to reach an arrangement for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip have broken down in the past week. Hamas has launched incendiary balloons into southern Israel and staged violent demonstrations on the border, raising the specter of renewed violence only a few months after a brutal 11-day war left at least 265 dead in Gaza and 13 in Israel.
``There's a new government in the U.S. and a new government in Israel, and I bring with me from Jerusalem a new spirit of cooperation, and this rests on the special and long relationship between the two countries,'' Bennett said before take-off.
Bennett took office two months ago after cobbling together a ruling coalition of eight disparate political parties, ranging from Jewish ultranationalists to a small Islamist faction, ousting longtime leader Benjamin Netanyahu from office following the country's fourth consecutive parliamentary election in two years.