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In Jerusalem, President Biden reassured Israel that he's a trustworthy partner

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden spent the day in Jerusalem working to reassure Israel that he is a loyal and trustworthy partner. He signed a security agreement with Israel's prime minister vowing to make sure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. But there was a key difference in the way the two leaders spoke about this pledge. And to talk more about that, we're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid in Jerusalem. Hey, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. OK, so I understand that you were in the room today when President Biden and Yair Lapid signed this pledge and spoke about it. What stood out to you in their remarks?

KHALID: So both President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid agreed that they want to make sure Iran never develops a nuclear weapon. But, Ailsa, what struck me is that when they came in front of cameras and microphones, the two leaders disagreed rather openly on the best way to make sure that does not happen. Take a listen to the Israeli prime minister.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER YAIR LAPID: 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.

KHALID: But when it came to President Biden, he was fairly clear that he still prefers to avoid a military option.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve this outcome.

KHALID: The Biden administration wants Iran to rejoin the nuclear deal, but the timeline for that is not clear. And the president has said he's not going to wait forever for a response from the Iranians.

CHANG: Well, Iran is going to be a huge topic when the president meets with other leaders from this region - for example, when he's in Saudi Arabia starting tomorrow, right?

KHALID: That's right. And historically, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been rivals, engaged in these proxy fights across the Middle East. And the Saudis, you know, in addition to some of the other countries in the Arab Gulf, are also deeply concerned about Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.

CHANG: Right. And I imagine that will come up when Biden meets with the king and the crown prince, which will be like one of the most anticipated moments on this trip, right? Because President Biden has been facing all of this pressure over his decision to visit Saudi Arabia in the first place.

KHALID: Right. And this pressure is because the United States' own intelligence community has assessed that the crown prince approved of the operation in 2018 to kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden was asked during a press conference today twice whether he would raise Khashoggi's death during this meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I always bring up human rights, but my position on Khashoggi has been so clear. If anyone doesn't understand it in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, then they haven't been around for a while.

CHANG: I mean, so it sounds like he stopped short of explicitly saying he would raise Khashoggi's death?

KHALID: That's right. And, you know, certainly on the campaign trail he called Saudi Arabia a pariah over this. So, you know, we'll see how the two men interact tomorrow. But today, Biden emphasized that he sees Saudi through a broader lens. He said he does not want Russia or China, for example, to gain more influence in the Middle East.

CHANG: And one last question, real quick, Asma, because tomorrow Biden will meet with Palestinian leadership. Usually when a U.S. president goes to the Middle East, there is always some discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So I'm curious, how is Biden approaching that?

KHALID: You know, Biden has reiterated multiple times that he supports a two-state solution to the conflict, but he hasn't put a whole lot of diplomatic muscle behind that. He's hoping to repair the U.S. relationship with Palestinians that was almost severed under the former president. So Biden, tomorrow, will start that by meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

CHANG: That is NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you, Asma.

KHALID: Happy to talk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.

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