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Israeli PM to meet Biden as tensions grow in Middle East

WASHINGTON DC, USA: Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will be holding a meeting with US President Joe Biden as tensions with Iran rise and Israeli forces renew their bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip amid Palestinian protests.

Bennett, in his first state visit overseas since taking office, was scheduled on Wednesday to meet with senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and on Thursday with Biden.

In a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office before his departure, Bennett said the top priority in his conversation with Biden would be Iran, “especially the leapfrogging in the past two to three years in the Iranian nuclear program”.

He said other issues would also be discussed, including the Israeli military’s qualitative edge, the coronavirus pandemic 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 relentless Israeli offensive killed 265 people in Gaza, and 13 in Israel.

Indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas – the group that governs the enclave – to reach an arrangement for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip have broken down in the past week.

Hamas has launched incendiary balloons into Israel and staged demonstrations on the border.

Palestinians say the balloons aim to pressure Israel to ease restrictions on Gaza and allow aid to reach the territory.

Confronting Gaza protesters along the fence on Saturday, Israeli troops shot and wounded 41 Palestinians, critically injuring two, medics said.

Palestinian gunfire seriously wounded an Israeli soldier, the military said.

“There’s a new government in the US 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 takeoff.

Bennett took office two months ago after cobbling together a ruling coalition of eight disparate political parties – ranging from Jewish ultra-nationalists to a small Islamist faction – removing longtime leader Benjamin Netanyahu from office following the country’s fourth consecutive parliamentary election in two years.