Biden pledges to address ‘hard issues’ related to democracy as he meets with Israeli PM Netanyahu

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NEW YORK (AP) — President Joe Biden pledged Wednesday to raise “hard issues,” including protecting the “checks and balances” in a democracy, as he sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for their first meeting since Netanyahu took office at the helm of his country’s far-right government late last year.

Netanyahu tried to play down concerns about his contentious proposed judicial overhaul, saying there is “one thing that will never change and that is Israel’s commitment to democracy.”

The location of the long-anticipated meeting — a New York hotel room on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meetings rather than the grandeur of the Oval Office — has been widely interpreted in Israel as a sign of U.S. displeasure with Netanyahu’s new government.

Netanyahu has been a frequent White House visitor over the years, and Israeli leaders are typically invited within weeks of starting their tenure to the Oval Office. But his judicial proposals have raised concerns within Israel as well as the U.S. about his commitment to a democratic system.

Biden opened the meeting by stressing the U.S. friendship with Israel as being “ironclad” and saying that “without Israel, there’s not a Jew in the world who is secure. Israel is essential.” But he also acknowledged the tensions with Netanyahu’s government and its policies.

“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,” Biden said. He said they would also talk about a path to a negotiated two-state solution with Palestinians and “ensuring that Iran never, never acquires a nuclear weapon.”

READ MORE: 6 Palestinians killed in latest fighting with Israel, officials say

Netanyahu stressed shared diplomatic goals in his opening remarks, such as peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia that he said could be made possible under Biden’s leadership.

Bien held out the possibility of the coveted Oval Office meeting, saying, “I hope we’ll see each other in Washington by the end of the year.” A person familiar with the planning, who spoke on condition of anonymity to address internal discussions, said the administration is eyeing such a meeting with Netanyahu in November or December.

Despite the cordiality between the two leaders at the start of the meeting, the Manhattan setting and Biden’s past misgivings about Netanyahu’s restructuring of the courts 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 U.S.-Israeli relations at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.

Biden administration officials have repeatedly raised concerns about Netanyahu’s 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 U.S. 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.

READ MORE: An American billionaire says he’ll stop funding the think tank behind Israel’s controversial judicial overhaul

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 U.S. 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.

Topping Netanyahu’s wish list were discussions on U.S. efforts to broker a deal establishing full diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Netanyahu, who also led Israel when President Donald Trump brokered the “Abraham Accords” between Israel and four Arab countries, has said that a similar deal with Saudi Arabia would mark a “quantum leap” forward for Israel and the region.

The White House has acknowledged that it is seeking such a deal, but obstacles lie in the way. Saudi Arabia is pushing for a nuclear cooperation deal and defense guarantees from the U.S.

The Saudis have also said they expect Israel to make significant concessions to the Palestinians.

Biden was expected to make clear to Netanyahu that any deal will need to consider Palestinian interests. Biden is cognizant that the Saudis are wary of proceeding with normalizing relations with Israel at a time when it is led by the most right-wing government in its history, and when tensions have soared with the Palestinians.

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, told reporters “there is no other way” to solve the conflict than by establishing a Palestinian state. But senior ministers in Netanyahu’s government have already ruled out any concessions to the Palestinians.

Israel has also been eager to consult with the U.S. 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.

Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Isabel Debre in Jerusalem and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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