Sep 20, 2023 - World

Biden tells Bibi he's concerned about Israel's judicial overhaul legislation

President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Photo: Handout/Israel's GPO

NEW YORK CITY President Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in their meeting Wednesday that he was concerned about the Israeli leader's intention to continue pushing his judicial overhaul legislation unilaterally, according to the White House.

Why it matters: The judicial overhaul has been a point of contention in the two leaders' relationship since it was first introduced, with the Biden administration concerned about what it will mean for Israel's democracy.

  • Wednesday's meeting was the two leaders' first sit-down since Netanyahu returned to office nearly nine months ago. The long delay — and the fact the meeting took place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and not at the White House as Netanyahu had wanted — underscores the strained relations.
  • The meeting's location was chosen after a long internal debate over political optics and foreign policy considerations, U.S. officials previously told Axios.

Driving the news: Netanyahu and his coalition partners are aiming to pass a law in the upcoming Knesset session that will change the system of appointing judges to the Supreme Court.

  • This is the main part of the judicial overhaul.

What they're saying: "The President ... reiterated his concern about any fundamental changes to Israel's democratic system, absent the broadest possible consensus," the White House said in a readout of the Wednesday meeting.

  • Netanyahu told Biden he is trying to reach a consensus with some in the opposition, but if those efforts fail, he will try to get a broad consensus in the public about further changes in the judicial system, according to a senior Israeli official, who stressed to reporters this was not the main issue of the one-hour meeting between the leaders.
  • Netanyahu at the top of their meeting told Biden that Israel's commitment to democracy will never change and stressed that he will continue to uphold the values both countries share.
  • Biden said that regardless of the differences between the U.S. and Israel, his commitment and support for Israel "remains ironclad."

State of play: Netanyahu has faced monthslong protests against the overhaul at home. He is also facing them in the U.S.

  • Israelis, American Jews and others demonstrated outside New York City's Intercontinental Hotel, where Wednesday's meeting took place.
  • The pro-democracy protesters demanded Netanyahu pull the plug on his government's judicial overhaul, which they say is undermining Israeli democracy.
  • Some held signs reading, "Biden save Israel."

The big picture: Biden and Netanyahu also discussed Iran, a new international infrastructure project to "develop the India Middle East Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel," and ongoing tensions and violence in the occupied West Bank, the White House said in the readout of the meeting.

  • The senior Israeli official said the Biden administration's efforts to get a Saudi-Israeli peace deal was the issue discussed.
  • Biden told Netanyahu at the top of the meeting that normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be a "big deal." He added that he suffers from "Irish optimism" and that if he talked about such a possibility a decade ago, people would have asked him what he had been drinking. "Maybe Irish Whiskey," Netanyahu replied.
  • Netanyahu also said: "I think that under your leadership, Mr. President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia. 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."
  • During their private meeting, Netanyahu agreed the Palestinian Authority should play a role in the process of getting a mega-deal, but cannot have veto power over parts of any agreement it doesn't like.

What to watch: Biden invited Netanyahu to Washington before the end of the year "to continue direct collaboration on this broad range of issues," the White House said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

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