Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got his long-coveted meeting with President Joe Biden on Wednesday, their first since Netanyahu took office at the helm of his country’s far-right government late last year.
He has been a frequent White House visitor over the years, and Israeli leaders are typically invited within weeks of starting their tenure. The lengthy delay in setting up the Biden meeting and the White House decision to hold it on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly rather than in Washington have been widely interpreted as signs of US displeasure with Netanyahu’s new government.
Biden opened the meeting by saying the US relationship with Israel was “ironclad.” But he also said they would discuss “upholding democratic values that lie at the heart of our partnership, including checks and balances.”
“We’re going to talk about some tough issues,” Biden said.
Netanyahu stressed common goals in his opening remarks. He said he would uphold democratic values, despite his proposed changes to Israel's court system.
Given the concerns about Netanyahu's commitment to democratic checks and balances, the setting of the meeting in Manhattan instead of the Oval Office was a sign of the strains in the alliance.
“Meeting at the White House symbolizes close relations and friendship and honor, and the denial of that shows exactly the opposite,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israeli relations at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.
“This is not going to be a pleasant meeting,” Gilboa said.
Biden administration officials have repeatedly raised concerns about Netanyahu’s contentious plan to overhaul Israel’s judicial system.
Netanyahu says the country’s unelected judges wield too much power over government decision-making. Critics say that by weakening the independent judiciary, Netanyahu is pushing Israel toward authoritarian rule.
His plan has divided the nation and led to months of mass protests against his government. Those demonstrations followed him to the United States, with large numbers of Israeli expatriates waving the country's flag in protest Wednesday in New York. Hundreds of Israelis also protested outside the US Embassy in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.
Early this year, Biden voiced his unhappiness over the judicial overhaul, saying Netanyahu “cannot continue down this road” and urging the Israeli leader to find a compromise. Netanyahu's negotiations with the opposition have stalled and his coalition has moved ahead with its plan, pushing the first major piece of the legislation through parliament in July.
The Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians has also drawn American ire. Netanyahu’s coalition is dominated by far-right ultranationalists who have greatly expanded Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. Israel’s government also opposes a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians — a cornerstone of White House policy in the region. The deadlock has coincided with a spike in fighting in the West Bank.
The Biden-Netanyahu meeting came at a time of cooling ties between Israel and the Democratic Party. A poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that while Americans generally view Israel as a partner or ally, many are questioning whether Netanyahu’s government shares American values. Republicans were significantly more likely than Democrats to call Israel an ally with shared values.
Tom Nides, who stepped down as US ambassador to Israel in July, said the timing and location of the meeting were issues and he acknowledged some policy differences.
“That’s what friends do. Friends argue with each other. We can articulate a strong view against settlement growth. We can say, quite frankly, arguably that they should get some compromise on judicial reform. What’s wrong with that?” Nides said.
But he predicted a good meeting devoid of “fireworks,” noting that Biden and Netanyahu are longtime friends and the countries are still close allies. “The relationship is as strong as it has ever been,” he said.
Netanyahu is expected to eventually get a White House invitation, though timing of such a visit could depend on how the New York meeting went.
Israel has been eager to consult with the US about Iran, particularly over their shared concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Iran says the program is peaceful, but it now enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.