Israeli leader meets with Biden as Mideast tensions grow

WASHINGTON (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s meeting with President Joe Biden comes in the midst of heightened tensions with its regional archenemy, Iran, and as Israel grapples with a gradual resurgence of hostilities on its southern border with the Gaza Strip.

Bennett, in his first state visit overseas since taking office, met separately Wednesday with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

At the start of his meeting with Blinken, Bennett said he planned to speak with Biden and administration officials primarily about “how do we fend off and curtail Iran’s … race to a nuclear weapon.”

The U.S. and Israel were also expected to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, climate change 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 American 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.”

Friction between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers has been building in the three months since an 11-day war with Islamist militant group left least 265 dead in Gaza and 13 in Israel.

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.

“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.

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