The Oval Office meeting was delayed one day because of the deadly terrorist attack Thursday in Kabul, and the tragedy hung over what would otherwise have been one of Biden’s most closely watched diplomatic engagements. Biden had called Bennett on Thursday evening, hours after their meeting had been postponed, and Bennett opened his public remarks with condolences for the loss of American troops.
Biden pledged “unwavering” support for Israel and continued backing for its Iron Dome missile defense system, along with diplomatic support for the normalization agreements Israel struck with help from President Donald Trump.
“The U.S. will always be there for Israel. It’s an unshakable partnership between our two nations,” Biden told the visiting Israeli, who was making his first Washington trip since his surprise success in ending Netanyahu’s record 12-year tenure.
“I have known every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir, gotten to know them fairly well, and I look forward to us establishing a strong personal relationship,” the 78-year-old Biden told Bennett, 49.
Both leaders seemed eager to push aside their underlying disagreements for now. Bennett remains firmly opposed to the international nuclear deal with Iran that Biden has pledged to try to rejoin. The right-wing Israeli politician has also dismissed as folly Biden’s goal of an independent Palestinian state.
Those divisions went unmentioned in brief remarks in front of reporters, as did the charged partisan debate about U.S. support for Israel that Netanyahu had helped stoke among Republicans.
“I bring with me a new spirit — a spirit of goodwill, a spirit of hope, a spirit of decency and honesty,” Bennett said.
He did not mention his predecessor by name, but his meaning was clear. Biden and President Barack Obama had been outraged when Netanyahu recruited congressional opposition to the Iran deal in 2015 and were blindsided when the Israeli leader was welcomed to address Congress to denounce the plan.
Trump withdrew from the deal, which Netanyahu celebrated as a political victory.
Negotiations to restore the agreement appear stalled, and the two leaders focused Friday on a mutual goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
“We’re putting diplomacy first and see where that takes us,” Biden said. “But if diplomacy fails, we’re ready to turn to other options.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki would not elaborate on what Biden meant.
“I was happy to hear your clear words,” Bennett said as he sat with Biden, adding that the carnage in Afghanistan is a reminder of the danger “if a radical Islamic regime acquired a nuclear weapon.”
Bennett’s approach on Iran differs from Netanyahu’s more in style than in substance. His government has assured U.S. officials that he will not go around the White House or publicly criticize the U.S. position, and Bennett has not appeared to encourage the enduring Republican opposition to the Iran plan.
Netanyahu was criticized at home and in the United States for steering American support of Israel away from its bipartisan footing. The issue has became more acute as liberal Democrats in the United States have increasingly criticized alleged Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights and, with some calling for a downgrade in the U.S. relationship with Israel.
Those prominent voices on the U.S. left have been part of a stark shift in Democratic attitudes toward Israel in recent years, with elected officials across the party spectrum showing a greater willingness to criticize the government there, particularly for its aggressions against Palestinians.
The changing dynamic was in focus during Israel’s military conflict in the Gaza Strip earlier this year. Not only did liberal Democrats sharply criticize Israel’s actions, but longtime Israel hawks including Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) suggested they would not always provide unquestioning support for Israel.
Even Biden, while more careful than many in his party about upsetting ties with Israel, showed some willingness to challenge it to ease tensions with Palestinians.
Biden made only a passing public reference to the Palestinian issue Friday. Bennett did not address it at all.
Ahead of his trip, Bennett told the New York Times that as prime minister he would neither attempt to annex the West Bank nor allow the occupied territory to become a sovereign Palestinian state. There is no consensus on the issue within his broad coalition, and he considers it shelved for now, Bennett said.
That may align with Biden’s priorities.
Although he supports Palestinian statehood, Biden has shown no appetite for brokering a sweeping Middle East peace deal — an aim that has eluded past presidents. Instead, he has charted more-modest goals, such as minimizing conflicts between Israel and Palestinians. Biden has oriented his foreign policy approach more heavily in dealing with threats posed by China and Russia, also marking a shift from prior administrations.
Bennett formed his coalition after a deadly 11-day war in May between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza. The group’s mandate was getting rid of Netanyahu and ending Israel’s political paralysis. Bennett does not hide his conservative views but is governing with a centrist bent.
Although Biden allies hailed the shift in leadership, they remain troubled by Bennett’s past positions.
“Naftali Bennett represents a very small number of people in the Knesset,” said Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), referring to Israel’s legislature. “He is, if anything, to the right of Netanyahu policy-wise on the Palestinian state, on the Iran nuclear deal, on important policy matters. But he is coming and saying we need a different relationship with the United States — we need to get back our warm friendship.”
Bennett will remain in Washington through the end of Shabbat on Saturday, an extension of his trip necessitated when the meeting was postponed a day.
The meeting came at a tenuous moment for Biden on the world stage. He has attempted to repair global relationships that frayed under Trump, restore confidence in the United States abroad and make a case that democracies do better by their citizens than autocracies.
But the swift collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan and the chaotic withdrawal of the United States from the two-decade war has unsettled some allies and led to divisions within NATO over evacuation efforts.
Bennett on Friday projected no such shakiness.
“We trust in your support, Mr. President,” he said, “and Israel knows that we have no better or more reliable ally in the world than the United States of America.”
Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.