Sep 20, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Inside the Biden-Netanyahu meeting

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and President Biden.Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

NEW YORKIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left his long-awaited meeting with President Biden Wednesday with exactly the result he wanted: an invitation to the White House before the end of the year.

Why it matters: For nine months, Biden had declined to meet Netanyahu over concerns about his far-right government and its steps to weaken Israel's Supreme Court. The tensions have significantly clouded the relationship between the two allies.

Between the lines: Although policy differences remain, Biden recognized that continuing to give Netanyahu the cold shoulder could harm his political standing with U.S. supporters of Israel and complicate efforts to reach a mega-deal with Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Driving the news: At least publicly, the meeting appeared to succeed in lowering the temperature and countering the perception that the two allies are drifting apart.

  • "I suffer from an oxymoron, Irish optimism. 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?'" Biden joked.
  • "Good Irish whiskey," Netanyahu quipped back.

Flashback: Netanyahu's 265-day freeze-out is the longest period any Israeli prime minister has waited to meet the U.S. president since 1964, according to the Washington Institute. Then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had to wait 341 days for a meeting with Richard Nixon.

Protesters gather in New York to demonstrate for democracy in Israel. Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images for New York Protest Movement

Behind the scenes: The meeting didn't start well. Netanyahu, who arrived on time to the Intercontinental Hotel in New York, waited more than 30 minutes for Biden to show up.

  • But when the president arrived, he immediately gave Netanyahu what he was hoping for: "I hope to see you in Washington by the end of the year," Biden said in front of the cameras at the top of the meeting.
  • In private, Biden and Netanyahu spent the hour-long meeting discussing Netanyahu's judicial overhaul, the state of normalization talks with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the situation in the West Bank.

A senior Israeli official with direct knowledge of the meeting compared it to a conversation between old friends, not a typical exchange between world leaders armed with talking points.

  • Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for more than 40 years and met numerous times before. The Israeli official said Netanyahu found Biden to be mentally sharp and dismissed concerns about his cognitive state.
  • "It was very constructive and very candid. It was an exchange that really only President Joe Biden could have with Bibi Netanyahu," a senior U.S. official said in a briefing with reporters.

State of play: The senior Israeli official said Netanyahu left the meeting very hopeful about the prospects of securing the mega-deal with Saudi Arabia.

  • "It is not a done deal and there are many variables, but the odds are more than 50%," the official said.
  • A similar sentiment was expressed Wednesday by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who told Fox News' Bret Baier in a rare interview: "Every day we get closer."

A senior U.S. official who briefed reporters after the meeting was more reserved: "Normalization is a very complicated issue. We have been making some progress, but there's some ways to travel on this before we get there."

  • The U.S. official said Biden and Netanyahu had "a pretty constructive discussion" about Israel's side of the deal — the concessions Netanyahu is willing to make to the Palestinians.
  • The acronym both sides are using is SCP — "significant Palestinian component." Netanyahu told Biden he agrees the Palestinians should be part of the deal, but insisted they must not have veto power, the Israeli official said.
  • "I think there is a basic meeting of the minds on not only the importance of that issue, but some of the contours of what would be required [regarding the Palestinian issue]," the senior U.S. official said.

What to watch: In a statement, the White House said Biden invited Netanyahu for a meeting in Washington by the end of the year.

  • U.S. officials said this was simply an invitation in principle and that no dates have been finalized.
  • The main issue determining whether the meeting takes place is the future of the judicial overhaul. Biden is unlikely to invite Netanyahu for an Oval Office meeting if the crisis in Israel persists.
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