Biden and Netanyahu signal momentum on Saudi ties
NEW YORK — The prospect of a historic diplomatic normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia inched closer to reality Wednesday.
President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed optimism about a possible Israel-Saudi breakthrough as they came together on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly for a much-anticipated face-to-face meeting that was otherwise fraught with unusually stark tensions between the two longtime allies.
“I think that under your leadership, Mr. President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Netanyahu said at the start of the meeting — the first between the two since Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative, nationalist coalition returned to power at the end of 2022.
While American and Israeli officials warned ahead of time that the meeting would be cold because of Mr. Biden’s frustration with the Netanyahu government’s contentious judicial overhaul and aggressive Jewish settlement policies, the comments on Saudi Arabia signaled a moment of warmth. The deal would build on a diplomatic recognition agreement by Israel with other Arab states begun under the Trump administration.
“If you and I 10 years ago were talking about normalization with Saudi Arabia, I think we’d look at each other like, ‘Who’s been drinking what?’” said Mr. Biden, suggesting he and Mr. Netanyahu may be more aligned than meets the eye on a major initiative that could re-draw the strategic map for the volatile region.
There was also daylight in the closely watched meeting when Mr. Biden told Mr. Netanyahu that he plans to welcome him in Washington by December, a move designed to ease tensions over a perceived snub of the right-wing leader, who has had an uneasy relationship with the current U.S. administration.
Mr. Netanyahu has not received the traditional invitation for new Israeli leaders to the capital by the Biden White House, even though Mr. Biden and Congress hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog earlier this year to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Israel’s statehood.
That meant the semi-casual meeting inside the InterContinental Hotel in Manhattan took on unusual significance for both capitals. The two men met a few blocks from U.N. headquarters, where this week’s General Assembly gathering of world leaders is playing out.
The Biden administration has been critical of Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to overhaul Israel’s independent judiciary by what critics say is a plan to weaken its Supreme Court and power over its executive and legislative branches. Mr. Biden has also complained about Israel’s expansion of its settlements in the West Bank, on land Palestinians say they need for a future independent state.
Mr. Biden said at the top of Wednesday’s meeting he was prepared to “discuss some of the hard issues, that is upholding democratic values that lie at the heart of our partnership, including the checks and balances in our systems.” He also said the two would talk about the Palestinian situation and their joint effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
But the comments on Israel-Saudi relations suggested the two have common ground on another key initiative.
Biden administration officials have been brokering indirect talks between the Israelis and Saudis for months, attempting albeit in quiet fashion to advance the “Abraham Accords” brokered under President Trump to end a long diplomatic freeze between Israel and four other Arab powers.
Mr. Biden has cautiously embraced the accords — named after the prophet recognized by Judaism, Christianity and Islam — that saw the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, UAE, Morocco and Sudan sign normalization agreements with Israel. The 2020 development marked the first official acknowledgment of Israel’s sovereignty by Arab nations since Egypt and Jordan broke from the rest of the Middle East to establish diplomatic ties with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively.
But oil-rich Saudi Arabia, the wealthiest and most powerful of the Gulf Arab powers, remained on the sidelines, in large part because of the Netanyahu government’s policies toward the Palestinians. While Riyadh has signaled tacit acceptance of the spirit of the Trump-era accords, it has yet to formally join.
Mr. Netanyahu, who worked closely with Mr. Trump on the Abraham Accords, has said the inclusion of Saudi Arabia in the future would mark a “quantum leap” forward for Israel and the region.
“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,” the Israeli prime minister said at the start of his meeting with Mr. Biden on Wednesday.
“This is something within our reach,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
But obstacles remain in the way and it is unclear whether the Saudi royal family is as optimistic as the Israeli prime minister or Mr. Biden.
While Saudi officials have participated in back-channel talks on normalization with Israel, it has conditions. Most notably, Riyadh is pushing for a nuclear cooperation deal and a more formal security guarantee from the United States as the price for its cooperation.
The Saudis have also said they expect Israel to make significant concessions to the Palestinians, something analysts say may be impossible for Mr. Netanyahu. The prime minister’s hold on power in Jerusalem relies on a coalition of right-wing and religious Israeli parties at a moment of soaring tensions with the Palestinians. Several of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition partners are firmly against the idea of giving the Palestinians their own state.
Mr. Biden is seen to be cognizant of this, and of the reality that the Saudis are wary of proceeding with normalizing relations with Israel amid concerns over the plight of the Palestinians.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told reporters on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly that “there is no other way” to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than by establishing an independent Palestinian state.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, acknowledged that negotiations over Saudi-Israeli normalization remain complex.
“Everyone involved understands the potential benefits, sees the transformative nature of what this would be, but the devil is always in the details,” Mr. Blinken said Wednesday during an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program.
“Making sure that in terms of what the Saudis are looking for, the Israelis are looking for…what we’d be looking for – can we line all that up? Can we make it work? That remains to be seen,” he said. “It’s challenging. But, again, I come back to this proposition that if we can get there, it would be one of the biggest changes for the good that we’ve seen in that part of the world. And beyond that, I think you’d see positive repercussions well beyond the Middle East.”
Mr. Biden was wrapping up two days of diplomacy at the U.N. gathering, which was notable in part for the number of major leaders — including Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the heads of France, Britain and India — declining to make the trip to New York this year.
Mr. Biden did meet Wednesday with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to discuss the Russian war and a new bilateral partnership focused on promoting workers’ rights.
• Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report article, which is based in part on wire service reports.