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Biden meets with Israeli leaders, with focus on Iran and Saudi Arabia

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JERUSALEM — President Joe Biden said Thursday that he still sees a diplomatic path to ensuring Iran doesn’t obtain a nuclear weapon, a contrast to the view of Israel's interim leader.

"I continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve this outcome and will continue to work with Israel to counter other threats from Iran throughout the region," Biden said at a news conference.

But Israel's caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid, who shared the stage with Biden, took a much stronger position on Iran, saying that nation must know "if they continue to deceive the world, they will pay a heavy price."

"Words will not stop them, Mr. President. Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force. The only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table," Lapid said.

During his two-day visit to Israel, Biden has sought to show a united front with Israel while reaffirming U.S. support for the Jewish state's security. Shortly before the news conference, the two leaders signed a joint declaration pledging never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.

But the exchange highlighted the divides under the surface between the United States and one of its closest allies over how to deal with Iran's growing nuclear threat.

The Biden administration has spent more than a year trying to revive an agreement scrapped by the Trump administration aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Talks have been largely stalled since March about re-entering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

"We have laid out for the people, for the leadership of Iran, what we're willing to accept to get back into the JCPOA. We're waiting for their response," Biden said. "When that will come, I'm not certain, but we are not going to wait forever."

He said Wednesday that military force would be used against Iran only as a “last resort,” in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12.

Before the news conference, Biden met Thursday with Lapid, who said they spoke about ways to improve relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia and their shared commitment never to allow a nuclear Iran.

During the meeting, they had also been expected to focus on efforts to assist Ukraine amid hesitation by Israel to send weapons, the expansion of U.S.-Israeli defense cooperation, and “preserving the prospect” of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the official said.

Biden also met with leaders of the United Arab Emirates and India along with Israel earlier Thursday to discuss food shortages as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and climate change.

The meetings were among a series of engagements Biden had with Israel's leaders Thursday, wading into the volatile political climate there just weeks after a major government upheaval unseated the country’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, and triggered another election.

Biden met with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as it is customary for visiting presidents to also meet with the head of the Israeli opposition party, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said ahead of the sit-down. Biden and Netanyahu, who was a close ally of former President Donald Trump, have a complex history together going back 40 years to Biden’s days as a senator. While the two have disagreed on a number of issues, they have projected a warm relationship publicly.

Following the meeting, Netanyahu told reporters that he emphasized to Biden that economic sanctions and the military alliance between Israel and the Gulf states wouldn't be enough to deter Iran, according to local media reports. He said a “credible offensive military option” should be on the table, something he said Biden agreed with.

“He said he agreed, and I was pleased to hear it,” Netanyahu said.

In addition, Biden met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who presented him with his nation's presidential medal of honor, and attended the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah Games, the world’s largest Jewish athletic competition.

Biden is scheduled to meet with Palestinian leaders on Friday before heading to Saudi Arabia for a summit with Arab leaders there. A key topic among the leaders will be Israel’s efforts to improve relations with its Arab neighbors. One step likely to be discussed is the possibility of Saudi Arabia allowing direct flights from Israel for Israeli Muslims to make the hajj pilgrimage, as well as the lifting of other air restrictions for Israeli flights over the country, foreign policy analysts have said.

Biden was asked Thursday whether he would bring up the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi when he sees Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the U.S. intelligence community concluded was behind the assassination.

While Biden didn't say whether he would specifically raise Khashoggi's death when pressed by a reporter during the news conference, he said human rights would be part of his conversation.

"My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely, positively clear," he said. "And I have never been quiet about talking about human rights."