The long-awaited meeting between President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took place last week, nine months after Netanyahu’s electoral victory last December – the longest time an Israeli prime minister has waited for a presidential meeting in 50 years.
To make matters worse, the meeting was not at the White House. It wasn’t even in DC. And it involved none of the ceremonial trappings accorded visiting government leaders. Instead, the meeting was held at a New York City hotel, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, as hundreds of people gathered outside to protest the Netanyahu government’s efforts to overhaul Israel’s judiciary and redefine its authority.
By all outward appearances, the Biden-Netanyahu meeting went well. The two leaders put on a good public face during their pre-meeting press conference. There were no surprises. There was, as expected, friendly banter, invocation of the unbreakable bond between the U.S. and Israel and profound commitments to democratic values, expanding opportunities for regional peace, resolution of Israel’s Palestinian challenges and the vilification of Iran.
The two leaders then met privately for nearly an hour. They had much to discuss. While the two appear to be relatively aligned on the importance of a brokered peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia, there are elements of the prospective deal – particularly about agreements Saudi Arabia is seeking from the United States – that raise concern in Israel and offer opportunity.
Netanyahu was undoubtedly anxious to discuss the Saudi-requested defense pact with the U.S. and the prospect of a similar U.S.-Israel deal, as well as the Saudi request for a civilian uranium enrichment program. But Biden made clear that his focus was on having a frank discussion about “some of the hard issues – that is, the wholly democratic values that lie at the heart of our relationship, including checks and balances in our systems.”
Biden has made no secret of his concern regarding Netanyahu’s effort to weaken the Israeli court system and his affiliation with far-right partners to form his government. While it is likely that Netanyahu responded to those issues with his standard assurance that he is the adult leader of the government, we trust that Biden made clear that it is time for Netanyahu to exercise that leadership with clear results.
Biden also wants to see movement toward the normalization of Palestinian rights and the pursuit of efforts toward a two-state solution. On both issues, Netanyahu may say he agrees with the objectives, but he knows that he will have a hard time selling them to his ultra-nationalist coalition partners. Nonetheless, the combination of the issues being part of a Saudi normalization package and a priority of the White House may provide an incentive for Netanyahu to become more active on them.
In the end, Biden will judge Netanyahu on his results. And those results will determine whether Biden honors his very public tease of Netanyahu that “I hope we will see each other in Washington by the end of the year.”