©Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden sits with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) for dinner at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/ File Photo
By Steve Holland
NEW YORK (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged on Wednesday to work together on a landmark deal to establish diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
When both leaders met for the first time since Netanyahu returned to power in December, they signaled a desire to ease tensions in their relationship, but Biden also made clear he was committed to discussing their differences.
These include Biden’s opposition to the controversial plan of Netanyahu’s far-right government, as well as his concerns about Israel’s hard line towards the Palestinians.
“I hope we can settle some business today,” Biden said at the start of the talks, sitting side by side with Netanyahu in the ballroom of a New York hotel.
Instead of meeting at the White House – the more prestigious venue favored by Netanyahu – the two leaders ultimately arranged their talks on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
US officials expected the judicial review to come up in their talks, with Biden likely to repeat his call for Netanyahu to change course as well as his efforts to counter Iran’s nuclear program.
Biden reiterated his commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and also reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But the biggest item on the agenda was a U.S.-led effort to establish diplomatic ties between longtime enemies Israel and Saudi Arabia, the centerpiece of broader, complex negotiations involving U.S. security guarantees and civilian nuclear aid sought by Riyadh demands, as well as Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.
“I believe that under your leadership, Mr. President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Netanyahu said, adding that “such a peace would go a long way toward ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state and promote genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Netanyahu said they could work together to make history.
“Together,” Biden repeated, signaling his commitment to the normalization effort that he said would have been unthinkable years ago.
Outside the hotel, Offir Gutelzon of UnXeptable, an anti-judicial overhaul movement, thanked Biden for his support of Israeli democracy during an anti-Netanyahu protest. “And we are here to thank you, President Biden, for your support of the people of Israel who want to preserve democracy,” Gutelzon said.
WHITE HOUSE SNUB
Netanyahu had expected an earlier American visit given his long history of dealing with American presidents and Washington’s close alliance with Israel, but Biden had resisted.
Netanyahu was denied a meeting in the first months of the Biden White House in 2021 and was subsequently removed from power. He returned to power in December as head of a coalition of religious and ultranationalist parties.
Instead, Biden welcomed Israeli President Isaac Herzog to the White House in a largely ceremonial post in July to mark the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
The talks with Netanyahu were seen as an opportunity for Biden to brief him and try to discern how far Israel would be willing to go in what was billed as a potential grand deal that could reshape Middle East geopolitics.
Netanyahu’s government has shown little willingness to make major concessions to the Palestinians, which could make it difficult for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to reach an agreement on normalization.
While U.S. officials insist a breakthrough is still far away, they privately tout the potential benefits, including removing a potential flashpoint in the Arab-Israeli conflict, strengthening the regional stronghold against Iran and countering China’s incursion into the Golf. Biden would also score a foreign policy victory if he runs for re-election in November 2024.
David Makovsky, a longtime Middle East watcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the meeting took place “265 days after Netanyahu came to power, the longest gap since 1964.”
“The enormous potential of the Saudi deal has left Biden and Netanyahu little choice but to meet despite their differences,” he said.
US officials have not ruled out a possible White House meeting between Biden and Netanyahu. “I hope we’ll see each other in Washington by the end of the year,” Biden said during their meeting.
The Biden administration calculates that the US could reap big rewards from such a megadeal if it can overcome steep obstacles.
“We have had decades of conflict in the Middle East. Bringing these two countries together would have a powerful effect on stabilizing the region,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News’ “Good Morning America” program, noting that challenges remain . reach an agreement.