US President Joe Biden offered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a long-awaited invitation to the White House when the two men met for the first time since the Israeli leader returned to power nine months ago.
(Bloomberg) — US President Joe Biden offered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a long-awaited invitation to the White House when the two men met for the first time since the Israeli leader returned to power nine months ago.
The sit-down on Wednesday in New York marked a step toward easing tensions between the two leaders, whose relationship has been frayed amid Netanyahu’s effort to strip power from Israel’s judicial branch.
The Israeli leader had sought an Oval Office meeting since retaking office last December, but Biden for months refused. The president and his top advisers have expressed concern about Netanyahu’s decision to include far-right political parties in his governing coalition, efforts to weaken the judiciary and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
But the thaw shows Biden is still dependent on Netanyahu to advance his goals in the Middle East, including a landmark normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The White House announced the White House invitation in a statement following the meeting. Biden also telegraphed it was forthcoming while speaking with Netanyahu at a hotel in New York, where they were attending the United Nations General Assembly.
“I hope we’ll be able to see each other in Washington by the end of the year here,” Biden told Netanyahu.
The two spoke privately without staff in addition to their formal meeting, according to a senior administration official. There is no date set for Netanyahu’s White House meeting, the official said.
Their discussion was not all positive, though. Biden said he would raise “some of the hard issues” with Netanyahu, including the “democratic values that lie at the heart of our partnership including checks and balances in our systems” — a reference to the judicial reforms.
Read more: Netanyahu Says Israel, Saudis Can Achieve ‘Historic Peace’
They also talked about Iran’s nuclear program and the US push for Saudi Arabia and Israel to normalize ties.
The US and Israel are on the same page about providing Riyadh a civilian nuclear program, according to a senior Israeli official, one of the pillars of a possible deal with the Saudis. The three countries are engaged in complex talks about an agreement under which Saudi Arabia would establish formal ties with Israel and receive security guarantees from the US. Israel would preserve the possibility of a future Palestinian state.
The meeting suggested Biden was easing off his wariness toward Netanyahu, who has known him for four decades. Netanyahu had a far warmer relationship with former President Donald Trump, whom he once said was “the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House.”
This time, though, Netanyahu had only praise for Biden.
“Under your leadership, Mr. President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Netanyahu said. “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.”
The judicial overhaul has sparked nine months of mass rallies in Israel. Protesters who view the plan as a blow to Israel’s democratic character continued to hound Netanyahu on his visit to New York, with several hundred gathering outside the hotel where he met the US president.
Netanyahu assured Biden that Israel’s commitment to democratic principles hasn’t changed.
“We will continue to uphold the values that both our proud democracies cherish,” he said.
The director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency joined the meeting between Biden and Netanyahu to present his position on Iran’s nuclear program, the Saudi talks and Iran-led efforts to target Israelis around the world, according to Netanyahu’s office.
(Updates with formal invitation to Netanyahu to visit White House, more details throughout)
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