Biden and Netanyahu look to cool tension in New York talks

Israeli Prime Minister says 'historic' agreement with Saudi Arabia is possible

US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. AP
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US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met on Wednesday at the UN, where the two allies sought to ease months of tension that has flared over the Israeli government's hardline domestic policies and its stance on Palestine.

The event, held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, came after Mr Biden in July invited Mr Netanyahu to the US but pointedly did not offer to host him at the White House.

Meeting for the first time since Mr Netanyahu returned to power in December, both leaders signalled a desire to ease the strain on their relationship, but Mr Biden made it clear he was determined to discuss their differences.

These included the US leader's opposition to Mr Netanyahu’s far-right government’s judicial overhaul plan as well as his concern over Israel’s hard line towards the Palestinians.

“I hope we can get some things settled today,” Mr Biden said at the start of the talks, sitting side-by-side with Mr Netanyahu in a New York hotel ballroom.

US officials expected the judicial overhaul to be raised in their conversations, with Mr Biden likely to reiterate his call for Mr Netanyahu to reverse course, as well as efforts to counter Iran’s nuclear programme.

As he did during his speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Mr Biden reiterated his commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and also repeated his support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

"Both of them shared their perspectives on Iran and share the concerns about Iran's destabilising behaviour and making sure, of course, that Iran can never achieve a nuclear weapon," White House National Security spokesman John Kirby said.

But the biggest issue on the agenda was a US-led push for Israel and Saudi Arabia to establish formal relations under an extension of the Abraham Accords.

Several recent media reports have sketched the outlines of a potential grand bargain in which Saudi Arabia would secure Palestinian support for an agreement with Israel by resuming funding for the Palestinian Authority. In return, the reports claim, the US would provide security guarantees to Riyadh.

“I think that under your leadership, Mr President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Mr Netanyahu said.

He 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”.

Mr Netanyahu said they could work together to make history.

“Together,” Mr Biden repeated, signalling his commitment to the effort to establish relations, which he said would have been unthinkable years ago.

Across from the InterContinental Hotel in New York where Mr Netanyahu was meeting the US President, hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were demonstrating.

An Israeli journalist voiced her apprehension over Mr Netanyahu's judicial reforms.

He “needs to listen to the people of Israel who are the keepers of Israeli democracy and are now protesting from the heart … if he listens to the extremists who are part of his government, he will take us to the stone age”, Tsipi Ben-Haim told The National.

Anti-Netanyahu protesters disrupt Israeli Prime Minister's meeting with Joe Biden

Anti-Netanyahu protesters disrupt Israeli Prime Minister's meeting with Joe Biden

Reuters reported that Offir Gutelzon of UnXeptable, an anti-judicial overhaul movement, thanked Mr Biden for supporting Israeli democracy.

“And we are here to thank you, President Biden, for standing with the People in Israel who want to preserve democracy,” Mr Gutelzon said.

In a sign of a softening stance, Mr Netanyahu sent shock waves through Israeli politics on Monday when he said original plans by his government to drastically reduce the power of Israel’s judiciary were a “mistake”.

The Prime Minister did not get a meeting in the early months of the Biden White House in 2021 and was then ousted from power. He was re-elected in December as head of a coalition of religious and ultranationalist parties.

Mr Biden in July welcomed Israeli President Isaac Herzog, whose role is largely ceremonial, to the White House to mark the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding.

Still, US officials have not ruled out an eventual White House meeting between Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu.

“I hope we will see each other in Washington by the end of the year,” Mr Biden said at their meeting.

So far, Mr Netanyahu’s government has shown little willingness to make major concessions to the Palestinians, which could make it hard for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to agree to establish relations.

Two hours before the meeting, 12 members of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party signed an open letter calling on the Prime Minister not to make concessions to Saudi Arabia vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

On Sunday, the Arabic-language newspaper Elaph reported that the kingdom had told the Biden administration it was putting talks on hold because Israel’s right-wing government was unwilling to offer any concessions to Palestinians.

The US and Israel denied the report. Wednesday’s letter demanded that there could be “no concessions on the homeland”.

According to a White House statement issued after Wednesday's one-hour meeting, the two leaders welcomed the historic announcement made at the G20 to develop the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel.

They discussed how the project would benefit the entire Middle East region with investment and new forms of collaboration across two continents.

On violence in the West Bank, Mr Biden stressed the need to take immediate measures to improve security and the economic situation, maintain the viability of a two-state solution, and promote a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr Netanyahu is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly on Friday.

Updated: September 21, 2023, 12:33 AM