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Blinken meets Israel’s new foreign minister who vows to fix mistakes

By Kylie Atwood, CNN

When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Rome, the Israeli foreign minister pledged to fix the politicized relationship between the two countries, even as he cited “serious reservations” over the Biden administration’s efforts to salvage the Iran nuclear deal.

“Israel has some serious reservations about the Iran nuclear deal that is being put together in Vienna,” Lapid said on Sunday. “We believe the way to discuss those disagreements is through direct and professional conversations, not in press conferences.”

The meeting comes as the Biden administration’s indirect talks with Tehran to salvage the Iran nuclear deal — which Israel continues to staunchly oppose — are set to enter a 7th round after the Iranian presidential election. The two countries agreed to get their Iran experts together for a briefing where the US would update Israel on the Iran deal talks, according to senior State Department officials.

During this first meeting between a Biden Cabinet official and Israeli leadership since the new Israeli government came into office earlier this month, Lapid pledged to fix how politicized the Israeli-US relationship had become in recent years during the tenure of former President Donald Trump and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“There is no relationship more important to Israel than the United States of America. There is no more loyal friend of the United States of America than Israel. In the past few years, mistakes were made. Israeli’s bipartisan standing was hurt,” Lapid said as the two leaders gave opening remarks before their meeting, adding, “We will fix those mistakes together.”

Blinken — sitting down with his counterpart who has been in the job for fewer than three weeks — acknowledged that they are delving into a new chapter of the relationship, but one with a deep past.

“Even though our situation is relatively new — the foundation that we are working on is one of an enduring partnership, relationship, friendship, between the US and Israel and it is based, as the foreign minister said, on a set of shared values and shared interests,” Blinken said.

The meeting comes about a month after President Joe Biden and his national security team were involved in a behind-the-scenes diplomatic effort with the Israelis, the Palestinians and other countries in the region earlier this year that resulted in a ceasefire to end an 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas.

But those talks were with Netanyahu’s government — before Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took office. Blinken’s meeting with Lapid officially launched the relationship between the Biden and Bennett governments.

Lapid will be someone with whom the Biden administration will grow quite familiar in the coming years. While Lapid is currently serving as foreign minister, he will take the reins from Bennett to serve as prime minister in two years, as part of the coalition government agreement.

One primary issue that the leaders focused on was the urgent need for humanitarian assistance and reconstruction in Gaza, according to senior State Department officials. Blinken also addressed the flashpoint issues that could spark another conflict, such as Temple Mount.

And while differences were discussed — including Blinken making clear US concerns about Israeli demolitions in East Jerusalem — the officials described the overall meeting as “warm” and “constructive.”

Blinken said that the Biden administration “strongly supports” the Abraham Accords — which were hatched during the Trump administration — but also said that “as important as they are, as vital as they are, they are not a substitute for engaging on the issues” between the Israelis and the Palestinians that need to be resolved. Blinken said that there is work that needs to be done on offering a “more hopeful future” for Israelis and Palestinians.

The Biden administration has not committed to any near-term effort to launch peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the focus in the aftermath of the recent Israeli-Hamas crisis focused on getting humanitarian assistance to the region.

The Biden administration has taken steps to nurture the US diplomatic relationship with the Palestinians after it was cut under Trump, who nurtured a deep relationship with Netanyahu and brokered normalization agreements between Israel and Gulf Arab nations. Biden officials have revived the Palestinian relationship and, in addition to reinstating millions in US funding for the Palestinians, are planning to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem, which Trump had closed.

Yet as the Biden administration delves into engagements with both the Palestinians and the Israelis, the prospect for peace in the region remains incredibly low.

After the recent violence in Gaza, Blinken said that “there has to be” a prospect for movement toward a genuine political solution.

“I think both sides are reminded that we have to find a way to break the cycle, because if we don’t, it will repeat itself at great cost and at great human suffering on all sides,” the secretary of state said in May. “As the President said, I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to try to make the turn to start to build something more positive.”

Blinken, who said the short-term focus is on the humanitarian crisis in the region, did not detail future efforts by the Biden administration to kick start a peace process. And other senior Biden administration officials have said that they do not want to lay down “unachievable objectives” and “waste time” pursing those goals.

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