Middle East Eye / September 20, 2023
The two leaders met in New York on sidelines of UN General Assembly for first time since Netanyahu’s return to power.
US President Joe Biden has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House before the end of the year, delivering a long-sought after invitation to Netanyahu as the two leaders continue ironing out a number of “hard issues”, including Saudi-Israel normalization.
“Today, we’re going to discuss some of the hard issues, that is upholding democratic values that lie at the heart of our partnership, including the checks and balances in our systems and preserving the path to a negotiated two-state solution, and ensuring that Iran never, never acquires a nuclear weapon,” Biden said in a meeting with Netanyahu, held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on Wednesday.
The biggest item on the two leaders’ agenda was a US push to establish formal relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The negotiations over the potential agreement have reportedly included a US-Saudi military pact and Washington’s help in creating a Saudi civilian nuclear program.
“I think that under your leadership, Mr President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Netanyahu said.
“Such a peace would go a long way first to advance the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state and advance a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
For months, Washington has been leading efforts to strike this deal. Riyadh has held out the offer to normalize ties with Israel since 2002 under the Arab Peace Plan, which calls for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
A Saudi media report over the weekend claimed that Riyadh was “pausing talks” with Israel because of distaste over Netanyahu’s far-right government.
The US State Department offered a quick and firm denial of the report on Sunday, saying on X: “Talks are ongoing, and we look forward to further conversations with both parties.”
A US official told Reuters that a normalization deal is still “a long way away” and that the parties involved will need to do “some very hard things” to reach an agreement.
US support for Israel
Meeting for the first time since Netanyahu returned to power in December, Biden said that he was determined to discuss their differences, which include the US president’s opposition to the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul plan.
Biden has described himself as a Zionist and previously said that “were there no Israel, we’d have to invent one”. He and Netanyahu have known each other for decades, dating back to Biden’s time as a member of the US Senate.
“How long has it been?” Biden asked Netanyahu during the meeting.
“Who can count?” Netanyahu responded.
In the lead-up to the meeting, the American press described the current state of US-Israel relations as “frosty”, given that Biden had not invited Netanyahu to Washington earlier this year and the two leaders had a heated back-and-forth regarding the judicial overhaul being proposed in Israel.
However, while Biden and Netanyahu had not met in person prior to Wednesday, the Biden administration has continued Washington’s stalwart support of Israel.
In March 2021, the administration “enthusiastically embraced” the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The definition has been condemned by prominent Jewish groups and hundreds of leading Jewish and Israeli scholars, who argue it serves to “shield Israel from being held accountable to universal standards of human rights and international law”.
Under the Biden administration, two American citizens – Shireen Abu Akleh and Omar Asaad – have been killed at the hands of Israeli forces. In July, Israel launched a raid on the Palestinian city of Jenin using sophisticated military technology including attack helicopters and drones.
While experts said the operation could amount to war crimes, a National Security Council spokesperson expressed US support for “Israel’s security and right to defend its people against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups”.
Most recently, the US and Israel have been working on a trial period to assess whether Israel would be allowed into a coveted visa waiver program (VWP). Analysts have previously noted how Israel has been given unique treatment during this process.
Despite Senate Democrats highlighting concerns that Israel is not in compliance with the standards of the program, it appears that the country is on track to be accepted into the VWP.
Israel-Saudi Arabia ‘normalisation’ deal in reach, Netanyahu tells Biden
Al-Jazeera / September 20, 2023
Meeting comes amid apparent friction between the two leaders over Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan in Israel.
Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed confidence that a “historic” US-brokered agreement to establish formal diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia can be reached, as the Israeli prime minister held talks with US President Joe Biden.
The meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Wednesday was the first between the two leaders since Netanyahu returned to power late last year.
The Biden administration has been pushing to establish formal ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, two top US allies in the Middle East.
“I think that under your leadership, Mr President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” the Israeli prime minister told Biden ahead of their talks.
“I think such a peace would go a long way first to advance the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state, and advance a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This is something within our reach.”
The discussions came as Israel continues to intensify violence against Palestinians in the occupied territories, drawing criticism from Palestinian rights defenders who have urged Biden to hold Israel accountable for abuses.
But on Wednesday, the US president called Netanyahu a “friend” and heaped praise on Israel.
“You’ve heard me say many times: Were there no Israel, we’d have to invent one, and I mean it,” Biden said.
He also lauded a newly announced initiative to create an economic corridor from India to Europe, including by rail through Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. “It’s a big deal,” he said.
Few Arab states have recognized Israel since its establishment in 1948, but former US President Donald Trump’s administration helped secure agreements to establish relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020.
Sudan also agreed to join the so-called normalization deals, known as the Abraham Accords.
Amid Israeli leaders’ calls for a similar pact with Saudi Arabia, Saudi officials have said Riyadh is sticking by the Arab Peace Initiative. That plan conditions normalization with Israel on its withdrawal from Arab territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state, as well as finding a “fair solution” to the plight of Palestinian refugees.
In addition to the normalization campaign, the Biden administration is pushing to include Israel in its Visa Waiver Program, which would allow Israelis to travel visa free to the US despite concerns about Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinian Americans.
Despite their continued alliance, US-Israeli relations have been marked by recent friction between Biden and Netanyahu.
The US president publicly clashed with Netanyahu earlier this year over the Israeli prime minister’s push to overhaul Israel’s judiciary, a move that his liberal critics say would weaken the rule of law in the country.
On Wednesday, Biden alluded to Netanyahu’s judicial plan, which has been put on hold for months. “Today, we’re going to discuss some of the hard issues,” Biden said.
“And that is upholding democratic values that lie at the heart of our partnership, including checks and balances in our systems and preserving the path to a negotiated two-state solution.”
Meanwhile, the US government has criticized Israel’s push to expand illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, as well as racist comments by ultranationalist ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet.
Biden also had not invited Netanyahu for an official visit to the White House, leading to criticism from US Republicans and speculation about tensions between the two leaders.
US officials regularly stress that American support for Israel, which leading rights groups have accused of maintaining a system of apartheid against Palestinians, is unwavering. Israel receives at least $3.8bn in US military aid annually.
Reporting from UN headquarters on Wednesday, Al-Jazeera’s diplomatic editor James Bays said a meeting with Netanyahu has been a “hot potato” issue for the Biden administration.
“The compromise … was not to have the meeting in the White House but on the sidelines [of the UNGA] here,” Bays said.
As the two leaders met, Jewish-American and Israeli demonstrators protested in New York.
The protesters – several of whom were waving Israeli flags – rallied “to raise their objections” to the judicial overhaul plan, Al-Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey reported.
“Many of the [demonstrators] that I spoke to say that they don’t think Biden should be even meeting with Netanyahu,” she added.
Later in the day, the White House said in a statement on the meeting that Biden invited Netanyahu to visit Washington, DC “before the end of the year to continue direct collaboration”.