Sep 12, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden-Bibi meeting sparked internal White House debate

President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photos: Win McNamee and Sean Gallup/Getty Images

President Biden has decided to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly — not at the White House — after a long internal debate over political optics and foreign policy considerations, according to three U.S. officials.

Why it matters: The expected meeting in New York next week will be the first in-person between Netanyahu and Biden since the prime minister returned to office nearly nine months ago — a highly unusual delay considering the close alliance between the U.S. and Israel.

The big picture: Netanyahu has been pushing through a judicial overhaul opposed by many Israelis, American Jews, Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration, who fear it will undermine Israel's democracy.

  • Netanyahu is also heading what Biden himself has called "the most extreme" Israeli government he has seen since he began working with Israeli prime ministers 50 years ago.

Behind the scenes: Netanyahu, who was frustrated and embarrassed that he hadn't been invited to the White House, pressed the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Herzog, to get him a meeting with Biden, according to two Israeli officials told Axios.

  • Israeli officials also pressed the White House for an Oval Office meeting ahead of Netanyahu's trip to New York for the UN General Assembly, the officials said.
  • Israeli and U.S. officials said one meeting date that was discussed was Sept. 22, after both Biden and Netanyahu finished their business at the UN.
  • The White House did not comment for this story.

A long debate ensued inside the White House about how to choreograph the meeting, with some of Biden's advisers supporting a meeting at the White House and others pushing for a meeting in New York, according to three U.S. officials.

  • Eventually, the decision was made for Biden to meet Netanyahu at the UN. Last Tuesday, Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke to Netanyahu on the phone and told him Biden's schedule precluded an Oval Office meeting, but that the president would see him in New York, two of the U.S. officials said.

Between the lines: The White House has not officially confirmed the meeting in New York. The three U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the issue say several factors other than Biden's schedule have played a role in the decision.

  • One senior U.S. official said that many in the White House thought an Oval Office meeting with Netanyahu now would harm Biden politically in the Democratic Party.
  • A second U.S. official said several of the president's aides were concerned about a scenario in which thousands of Israelis and American Jews would descend on the White House to protest the meeting.
  • The official said the White House didn't want to "import" Israel's domestic political debate to Washington.

A third U.S. official said some of Biden's advisers who objected to an Oval Office meeting believed it would send the wrong signal about what the president thinks about the judicial overhaul and the Netanyahu government's policies.

  • The U.S. officials said a meeting in New York will strike the right balance between the different considerations. It will allow Biden and Netanyahu to meet in person and discuss pressing issues such as the judicial overhaul and the push for a megadeal with Saudi Arabia — but will not signal to the Israelis that it's business as usual.

State of play: The Israeli Supreme Court on Tuesday held its first hearing in the appeal against the first judicial overhaul legislation passed by the Knesset several weeks ago.

  • Netanyahu and many of his cabinet ministers refused to commit to abide by the Supreme Court's ruling if it strikes down the legislation.

What's next: U.S. officials told Axios the White House told Netanyahu's aides the prime minister will be invited to Washington at a later stage this year.

  • A senior U.S. official said the White House wants to see how the situation surrounding the judicial overhaul develops in the next few weeks.
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