JERUSALEM – President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid discussed Iran’s rapidly developing nuclear program on Thursday, with the Israeli leader vowing that “there will be no nuclear Iran.”
The US president, who is set to visit Saudi Arabia on Friday, said he also stressed to Lapid the importance of Israel becoming “fully integrated” into the region.
Their one-on-one talks are the centerpiece of Biden’s 48-hour visit aimed at strengthening the already close relationship between the US and Israel. The leaders also issued a joint declaration emphasizing military cooperation and a commitment to prevent Iran, which Israel considers an enemy, from acquiring nuclear weapons.
“We discussed the Iranian threat,” Lapid told reporters afterward. “There will be no nuclear Iran.”
Israeli officials sought to use Biden’s first visit to the Middle East as president to emphasize that Iran’s nuclear program has gone too far and to encourage the Biden administration to halt efforts to renew the 2015 Iran deal to curb its development.
Reviving the Iran nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration and abandoned by Donald Trump in 2018 was a key priority for Biden when he took office. But administration officials are increasingly pessimistic about the chances of bringing Tehran back into compliance.
In a joint statement, the United States said it was prepared to use “all elements of its national power” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
Biden, in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 that aired on Wednesday, reaffirmed his determination to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, saying he was prepared to use force as a “last resort” if necessary.
Last week, Iran announced that it had enriched uranium to 60% purity, which is technically beyond weapons grade.
The joint declaration announced Thursday could have important symbolic significance for Biden’s meeting this weekend with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia as he seeks to strengthen a regional alliance against Iran.
“I talked about how important it is … for Israel to be fully integrated into the region,” Biden said after meeting one-on-one with Lapid.
Thursday’s meeting could also give a boost to Lapid, who is acting as interim prime minister until elections in November, Israel’s fifth in less than four years. Lapid’s main opponent is former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and a joint appearance with Biden could help improve his credentials as a statesman and leader.
Biden and Lapid also planned a joint press conference on Thursday and took part in a virtual summit with India and the United Arab Emirates, a group of countries called I2U2. The United Arab Emirates has announced assistance in financing a $2 billion project to support agriculture in India.
58-year-old Lapid is a former journalist and TV presenter who entered politics only ten years ago. He served as finance minister under Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, before becoming opposition leader and co-ordinating the diverse eight-party coalition that ended Netanyahu’s government.
Naftali Bennett became prime minister and Lapid became foreign minister. But the coalition fell apart after months of infighting, and Bennett agreed to step aside from Lapid before the election.
Lapid worked hard to strengthen his powers as a statesman as foreign minister. His aides believe that a personal meeting, public appearances and a show of friendship with Biden, who is making his 10th trip to Israel at the age of 79, will strengthen that image and make the electorate feel more comfortable with Lapid as their leader.
However, Netanyahu is running for prime minister again, and opinion polls have predicted that his conservative Likud party will win the most seats in the next election, well ahead of Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party.
Neither party is poised to single-handedly capture the majority of seats needed to form a government, and it is unclear whether any of them can form a governing coalition with smaller parties.
Biden downplayed the political uncertainty in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 that aired Wednesday.
“We are loyal to the state, not to an individual leader,” he said.
Biden did not mention the election during the public portion of the meeting with Lapid on Thursday, but told reporters that “we had a good start to a long, God-willing, relationship.”
Biden is expected to meet only briefly with Netanyahu, with whom he has had a rocky relationship in the past.
Like Lapid, Biden faces a political threat from his predecessor. Trump, a Netanyahu ally who still enjoys strong support among Republican voters despite an attempt to nullify the last election, could run for another term.
Asked by Channel 12 if he expects a rematch, Biden said: “I’m not predicting, but I won’t be disappointed.”
Given the US’s status as Israel’s closest and most important ally, Biden is in the national spotlight during his visit.
Israel organized an elaborate welcome ceremony for him at Tel Aviv airport, including a red carpet and an orchestra playing the national anthems of both countries. Major television channels set up special live broadcasts of Biden’s arrival and even broadcast a continuous cycle of his motorcade moving along the highway to Jerusalem.
Israel opposed the original nuclear deal reached under President Obama in 2015 because its restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment had ended and the deal did not address Iran’s ballistic missile program or military activities in the region.
Instead of the US re-entering the deal that Trump pulled out of in 2018, Israel would prefer tough sanctions in hopes of leading to a broader deal.
On Thursday, Biden will also receive Israel’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Honor, from President Isaac Hertz.
He also has scheduled meetings with American athletes participating in the Maccabian Games. Also known as the “Jewish Olympics,” it is the country’s largest sporting event, held every four years for Israeli and Jewish athletes from around the world.
Megerian reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Joseph Federman in Jerusalem and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.
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