Bethan McKernan & Julian Borger
The Guardian / September 17, 2023
US president agrees to talks at general assembly despite deep unease over policies of Israeli PM’s hardline coalition.
Nine months after returning to office, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is finally getting his long sought-after meeting with Joe Biden – but an awkward rapprochement at the UN general assembly is unlikely to improve the strained relationship between the two leaders.
The US president is scheduled to meet Netanyahu in New York on Wednesday, the White House said on Friday. The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the two leaders would “discuss a range of bilateral and regional issues focused on the shared democratic values between the United States and Israel and a vision for a more stable and prosperous and integrated region, as well as to compare notes on effectively countering and deterring Iran”.
Sullivan’s reference to shared democratic values was a reference to deep unease in Biden’s White House about the judicial overhaul being pushed by Netanyahu’s hardline coalition partners, which it sees as an assault on the judiciary’s independence. The proposals have been greeted by the largest protest movement in Israeli history, including unprecedented declarations from thousands of military reservists that they wish to be released from service.
That has been the primary factor in Biden’s refusal to meet Netanyahu so far during the Israeli prime minister’s current term, and the principal reason there will not be the meeting in the White House that Netanyahu sought.
Biden’s administration has also expressed frustration with accelerating Israeli settlement growth in the occupied West Bank, which the international community considers a major obstacle to peace with the Palestinians and a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict.
The announcement came amid calls from Israeli artists and intellectuals, including well-known writer David Grossman and painter Tamar Getter, for the US president to shun a sit down with Netanyahu altogether.
“From the outset of establishing his extreme right-wing government, Netanyahu’s coalition has worked tirelessly to weaken the supreme court, neutralize the media and destroy the few checks and balances safeguarding the health of our nation,” an open letter published last week and signed by 3,500 Israeli academics and public figures read.
“Netanyahu incites citizens against each other, threatens the country’s security and economy, and turns his face away from the historical conflict that tears Israel apart – the forceful domination of the Palestinian people.”
The Israeli leader announced earlier this month that he would visit the US, Israel’s staunchest ally, which donates billions in military aid to the country each year. Initially, however, no meetings with US officials were announced – an anomaly for visiting Israeli prime ministers. Netanyahu, who grew up between Jerusalem and the US city of Philadelphia, frequently boasts of his close connection to the US to bolster his platform both at home and abroad.
Biden said earlier this year that he had no intention of sitting down with Netanyahu “in the near term”, before his office said in July that a meeting had been agreed. Netanyahu’s office was quick to announce that he had been invited to meet the president in the US, but the Biden administration pointedly declined to call it an invitation and did not specify where the leaders would meet.
The snub was emphasized when Biden welcomed Israel’s figurehead president, Isaac Herzog, to the White House in July.
According to the Axios news site, the issue of a Netanyahu invitation split Biden’s advisers, ultimately leading to a compromise of the meeting on the sidelines of the UN general assembly on Wednesday. A meeting in the White House, it was argued, would signal approval and reward for Israeli government policy.
Biden’s team also did not want to import Israeli politics and have a crowd of demonstrators outside the White House during a meeting, which would also have led to complaints from the progressive end of the Democratic party.
A White House invitation has not been ruled out before the end of the year, because the Biden administration is keen to use the prize as leverage, waiting to see what happens to the legislation on the judiciary, now being challenged in Israel’s supreme court.
It is also an incentive for Netanyahu’s cooperation in a deal that would normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. Such an agreement would be a political coup for the Israeli prime minister, but Washington and Riyadh are seeking to persuade him to accept elements of the deal intended to benefit Palestinians, possibly including the transfer of West Bank territory to direct Palestinian rule.
There is no personal bond between Biden and Netanyahu, who have known each other for decades, although the US leader often describes himself as a “true friend of Israel”.
Biden is well aware of the Israeli’s previous interventions in US politics in favour of Donald Trump and has called the current Israeli cabinet one of the most extreme he has seen in his long political lifetime.
However, he is also cognizant of the fact that freezing out an Israeli leader entirely is bad electoral politics in the US, and that the two countries have to be seen to be sticking together in the face of the steady progress of Iran’s nuclear program.
During his week-long visit, Netanyahu will also meet leaders of the US Jewish community. Before arriving in New York, he is also expected to visit San Francisco, where he will meet tech industry leaders including Elon Musk. The pair are scheduled to discuss antisemitism on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian
Julian Borger is The Guardian’s world affairs editor