UNITED NATIONS — Ending a prolonged snub, President Joe Biden held a “very candid” meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, welcoming possible rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia and cautioning him to preserve democracy at home.
The meeting pointedly did not take place at the White House, as Netanyahu would have preferred, but in a New York hotel on the margins of the annual United Nations General Assembly, which both leaders were attending this week.
“Today, we’re going to discuss some of the hard issues,” Biden said ahead of the session, seated with the Israeli prime minister in front of an array of flags from both countries. The topics to be covered, he said, were “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.”
The president was alluding to Netanyahu’s efforts to overhaul the Israeli judiciary in ways that many in that country say would undermine democracy and gut one of the few balances of political power there. The move has triggered massive demonstrations for months. Biden has urged Netanyahu and his coalition government to seek consensus instead of pushing ahead with such unpopular measures, but to little avail.
Biden also referred to the importance of an independent Palestinian nation — the two-state solution — hopes for which have all but vanished with the arrival of Israel’s most right-wing and nationalistic government to date.
A senior Biden administration official, who briefed reporters after the meeting on condition of anonymity in keeping with White House protocols, described the session as “very constructive, very candid — (and) ultimately, we hope, productive.”
Netanyahu emphasized ongoing talks to open diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, an extension of the Abraham Accords brokered during the Trump administration in which a handful of Arab and Muslim countries formally recognized Israel. Before then, Egypt and Jordan were the only countries in the Middle East that did.
“I think that under your leadership, Mr. President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Netanyahu said. “And I think such a peace would go a long way for us 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.”
Biden added: “If you and I 10 years ago were talking about normalization with Saudi Arabia, I think we’d look at each other like, ‘Who’s been drinking what?’”
But privately, U.S. officials remain cautious about a normalization deal, saying it has a long way to go. Saudi Arabia has a formidable list of asks, including assistance with a civilian nuclear energy program and a security pact that would include a NATO-style commitment that the U.S. will go to Saudi Arabia’s defense in case of attack.
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