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Biden gives Netanyahu long-awaited White House invitation

The two leaders met in New York on sidelines of UN General Assembly for first time since Netanyahu's return to power
US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on 20 September 2023.
US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, on 20 September 2023 (AP)

US President Joe Biden has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House before the end of the year, delivering a long-sought after invitation to Netanyahu as the two leaders continue ironing out a number of "hard issues", including Saudi-Israel normalisation.

"Today, we're going 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 and preserving the path to a negotiated two-state solution, and ensuring that Iran never, never acquires a nuclear weapon," Biden said in a meeting with Netanyahu, held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on Wednesday. 

The biggest item on the two leaders' agenda was a US push to establish formal relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The negotiations over the potential agreement have reportedly included a US-Saudi military pact and Washington's help in creating a Saudi civilian nuclear programme.

"I think that 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 first 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."

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For months, Washington has been leading efforts to strike this deal. Riyadh has held out the offer to normalise ties with Israel since 2002 under the Arab Peace Plan, which calls for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

A Saudi media report over the weekend claimed that Riyadh was "pausing talks" with Israel because of distaste over Netanyahu's far-right government.

The US State Department offered a quick and firm denial of the report on Sunday, saying on X: "Talks are ongoing, and we look forward to further conversations with both parties."

A US official told Reuters that a normalisation deal is still "a long way away" and that the parties involved will need to do "some very hard things" to reach an agreement.

US support for Israel

Meeting for the first time since Netanyahu returned to power in December, Biden said that he was determined to discuss their differences, which include the US president's opposition to the Netanyahu government's judicial overhaul plan.

Biden has described himself as a Zionist and previously said that "were there no Israel, we'd have to invent one". He and Netanyahu have known each other for decades, dating back to Biden's time as a member of the US Senate.

"How long has it been?" Biden asked Netanyahu during the meeting.

"Who can count?" Netanyahu responded.

In the lead-up to the meeting, the American press described the current state of US-Israel relations as "frosty", given that Biden had not invited Netanyahu to Washington earlier this year and the two leaders had a heated back-and-forth regarding the judicial overhaul being proposed in Israel.

However, while Biden and Netanyahu had not met in person prior to Wednesday, the Biden administration has continued Washington's stalwart support of Israel.

In March 2021, the administration "enthusiastically embraced" the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Association's (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The definition has been condemned by prominent Jewish groups and hundreds of leading Jewish and Israeli scholars, who argue it serves to "shield Israel from being held accountable to universal standards of human rights and international law".

Under the Biden administration, two American citizens - Shireen Abu Akleh and Omar Asaad - have been killed at the hands of Israeli forces. In July, Israel launched a raid on the Palestinian city of Jenin using sophisticated military technology including attack helicopters and drones.

While experts said the operation could amount to war crimes, a National Security Council spokesperson expressed US support for "Israel's security and right to defend its people against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups".

Most recently, the US and Israel have been working on a trial period to assess whether Israel would be allowed into a coveted visa waiver programme (VWP). Analysts have previously noted how Israel has been given unique treatment during this process.

Despite Senate Democrats highlighting concerns that Israel is not in compliance with the standards of the programme, it appears that the country is on track to be accepted into the VWP.

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