Biden and Netanyahu meet to try to ease tensions, with some success | ET REALITY


For the first time since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel returned to power last December, he and President Biden met face to face on Wednesday in a session that eased and escalated tensions between the leaders and demonstrated the broader commitment of Biden with Israeli security.

By ending his informal moratorium on personal contact with Netanyahu, Biden showed that he was willing to overlook personal frustrations with the prime minister’s domestic policies in favor of promoting international projects of mutual interest to the United States and Israel: preventing Iran build a nuclear weapon and establish formal relations for the first time between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“Even when we have our differences, my commitment to Israel is ironclad,” Biden said at the start of the meeting at a hotel near the United Nations, promising to ensure “that Iran never, ever gets a nuclear weapon.”

Biden also hinted that Netanyahu could be invited to a more formal meeting at the White House within months, a big boost for the prime minister.

“I hope we will see each other in Washington at the end of the year,” the president said. The White House later issued a statement saying Biden had extended a formal invitation.

But other comments by Biden, made before the meeting, made clear that the relationship remains thorny. He expressed measured criticism of Netanyahu’s efforts to reduce the power of Israel’s Supreme Court, which have triggered one of the worst internal crises in Israel’s history.

Biden also pressed Netanyahu to preserve the possibility of creating a Palestinian state, implicitly criticizing several recent moves by the Netanyahu government to entrench Israeli control of the West Bank.

“Today we are going to discuss some of the difficult issues: defending the 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,” Biden said. he said at the beginning of the meeting.

His comments reflected deep unease in Washington over Netanyahu’s efforts to reduce the power of Israel’s judiciary.

American officials are also unhappy with Netanyahu’s plans to build a record number of Israeli homes and buildings in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and to retroactively legalize unauthorized settlements built in the territory by Israeli civilians. Both actions will make it more difficult to create a Palestinian state and also risk making Saudi Arabia more cautious about reaching a deal with Israel.

The meeting was private (and Biden and Netanyahu spent about 15 minutes alone, with no attendees), but U.S. and Israeli officials later said it focused on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, which they both oppose but disagree about. how to combat it, and that United States Israeli-led efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Moments before the meeting began, Biden told Netanyahu: “If you and I, 10 years ago, were talking about normalization with Saudi Arabia, I think we would look at each other like, ‘Who’s been drinking?’ that?'”

Like most Arab countries, Saudi Arabia has never recognized Israel and has avoided establishing diplomatic ties out of solidarity with the Palestinians. But since late last year, the United States has been trying to negotiate a historic normalization deal between the two countries, one that would see Saudi Arabia establish relations with Israel in exchange for the United States supporting a civil nuclear program on Saudi soil and providing to Riyadh. with greater military support.

To secure the deal, Israel will need to make some concessions to the Palestinians, such as giving them more land in the West Bank. But senior members of Netanyahu’s government – ​​the most ultra-nationalist in Israel’s history – are firmly opposed to such gestures, making it more difficult to reach an agreement.

Biden used the meeting to press the prime minister to do more to support the normalization process, White House officials said. A description of the meeting released by the White House after it ended said Biden had asked Netanyahu to “take immediate steps to improve the economic and security situation, maintain the viability of a two-state solution, and promote a solution.” a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

A senior Biden administration official, who spoke to reporters after the meeting on condition of anonymity, said there was “a common understanding” among all leaders in the region, including Netanyahu, that any normalization of relations with the Saudis would require addressing the Palestinian issue.

The official said that during the meeting there was a “basic agreement of ideas” both about the importance of the issue and the contours of what would be required.

But administration officials have said they recognize that Netanyahu is operating within the constraints of his governing coalition, which includes ultra-nationalist members who oppose giving more sovereignty to the Palestinians. A senior Israeli official said Netanyahu told Biden that the Palestinians should be included in the deal, but not given the right to veto it.

The White House statement said Biden had urged the prime minister and others to honor commitments, made to Palestinian leaders in meetings mediated earlier this year by the United States, to reduce tensions in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. . He also stressed to Netanyahu the need to refrain from “new unilateral measures,” referring to the construction of new settlements.

Although the two leaders have worked together for decades and describe each other as friends, Biden has described Netanyahu’s current governing coalition as “one of the most extreme” in Israel’s history.

Back home, a photo with the president may offer Netanyahu the opportunity to construct a new narrative: present himself as a statesman, remind Israelis of his extensive diplomatic experience and suggest that recent frictions with Biden have eased.

But Netanyahu’s critics, hundreds of whom protested outside the hotel, said the meeting should not distract from Netanyahu’s attempt to weaken the judiciary.

“You can have as many talks as you want and all your witty interviews, but we don’t forget what you’re doing in Israel,” said Inbal Biton, 48, an Israeli tech worker who joined the crowd of protesters outside. the meeting.

At the meeting, Biden did not back away from his previous criticism of judicial reform. According to the White House’s description of the meeting, Biden “reiterated his concerns about any fundamental changes to Israel’s democratic system, absent the broadest possible consensus.”

Netanyahu sought to assuage Biden’s concerns about his commitment to democracy and peace with the Palestinians.

“One thing is certain and will never change, and that is Israel’s commitment to democracy,” Netanyahu said. before their meeting began. “We will continue to defend the values ​​that our two proud democracies hold dear.”

He also praised Biden’s efforts to mediate between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Successful talks, he said, “will end the Arab-Israeli conflict, achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state, and promote real peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

However, Netanyahu’s message was undermined by an earlier announcement by 11 lawmakers from his right-wing Likud party. In a statement released Wednesday, lawmakers said they would block efforts to give land to Palestinians in exchange for peace with Saudi Arabia.

But as dissatisfied as the White House may be with the tactics of Netanyahu’s coalition, the relationship between the United States and Israel, which enjoys broad bipartisan support, appears as stable as ever.

U.S. officials view Israel as a key military partner in the Middle East, providing it with nearly $4 billion in military aid each year and providing it with strong diplomatic support in the United Nations Security Council.

“I don’t see any material changes,” said Dov Zakheim, a former senior U.S. official who follows U.S.-Israel relations. “We don’t help Israelis just because we love them. “We help Israel because it is the most powerful army in the region.”

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel.

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