With unrest in West Bank, US and Israeli presidents focus on Iran

Talks at the White House between United States President Joe Biden and Israeli President Isaac Herzog have focused on Iran, the Israeli government said on Wednesday, as its military engaged in a crackdown on Palestinian groups in the occupied West Bank.

In remarks to reporters before the meeting in Washington, DC, the two leaders did not mention Palestinians despite mounting tensions and violence, especially in the West Bank city of Nablus, where six Palestinians were killed this week.

Instead, Herzog invoked the crackdown on anti-government protests in Iran as he sat next to Biden in the Oval Office.

“This is an example of Iran crushing their own citizens while moving forward towards nuclear weapons and supplying lethal weapons that is killing innocent citizens in Ukraine,” Herzog said. “I think the Iranian challenge will be a major challenge to be discussed.”

In a statement describing the talks, the White House said later on Wednesday that Biden “emphasized the importance of taking steps to deescalate the security situation in the West Bank”.

After the meeting, the Israeli president said in a statement that the two leaders discussed “mainly the issue of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons”.

While Tehran denies pursuing a nuclear weapon, Israel has continued to oppose diplomatic efforts between the US and Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal that saw Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for international sanctions relief.

Israel, one of four countries that are not signatories to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is widely believed to possess a covert nuclear arsenal.

The Israeli president, who serves in a largely ceremonial role, noted on Wednesday that the US and Israel will hold crucial legislative elections next month, saying the partnership between the two countries “transcends all political differences and opinions and parties”.

For his part, Biden reiterated pro-Israel statements that he has repeatedly used during his decades-long political career. “Were there not an Israel, we’d have to invent one,” he said ahead of the meeting.

He also stressed the “ironclad” US commitment to Israel and highlighted a recent, Washington-brokered agreement to draw permanent maritime boundaries between Israel and Lebanon.

Advocates questioned why Biden, who had promised to put human rights at the centre of US foreign policy, did not bring up recent Israeli abuses against Palestinians in his comments to reporters ahead of the talks with Herzog.

“While the Israeli military invades Palestinian neighborhoods and brutally kills Palestinian people, continuing Israel’s decades-long violent colonialism, President Biden could not spare a single comment about the Palestinian people in his remarks to the media today,” Sana Siddiq, an advocate with the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, told Al Jazeera in a statement.

“His callous disregard for Palestinian human life as he cozies up to apartheid Israel is shameful,” she said.

According to the White House statement, Biden stressed his support for the two-state solution and said he “underlined the need to take continued steps to improve the lives of Palestinians, which are critical to peace, security and prosperity” in his discussions with Herzog.

Since taking office, the US president has pledged to deepen US military and diplomatic support for Israel.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration refrains from criticising Israeli rights violations against Palestinians, including the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem – territories that would be home to a future Palestinian state.

The White House instead has focused on regional “integration”, advancing a vision of the Middle East where Arab countries cooperate militarily and economically with Israel to ward off perceived common threats, namely Iran.

On Wednesday, Herzog also mentioned Israel’s partnerships in the region before and after the meeting with Biden.

“We discussed the integration and inclusion of Israel in the region and the potential of doing so many great things with our neighbors in the various Arab states around us,” he said in a statement.

The Israeli president also cited the upcoming COP27 UN climate summit in Egypt as an opportunity to push towards that goal.

“The climate change challenge can serve as a common denominator for so many nations and also between Israel and the United States,” Herzog told reporters at the White House.

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