As overhaul and settlements advance, Biden agreeing to meet Netanyahu raises eyebrows

Administration was worried attention had turned to alleged snub rather than irresponsible Israeli policies, US official says, noting that no date for sit-down has actually been set

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US President Joe Biden gives a thumbs up as he walks with first lady Jill Biden to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, July 14, 2023, as they head to Camp David for the weekend. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
US President Joe Biden gives a thumbs up as he walks with first lady Jill Biden to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, July 14, 2023, as they head to Camp David for the weekend. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

US President Joe Biden’s Monday decision to gift Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with an announcement of plans to meet after nearly seven months appeared ill-timed, if not off-message.

In late March, Biden declared that a White House invite was off the table for the “near term,” urging Netanyahu to “walk away” from his coalition’s judicial overhaul legislation, which he feared was threatening the viability of Israel’s democracy. Then last week, the US president lamented the “extreme” nature of Netanyahu’s coalition, particularly the belief of certain members that they could “settle anywhere we want” in the West Bank while denying Palestinian rights to the same land.

On neither issue has Israel moved substantially since he made those comments. Netanyahu did agree in late March to temporarily pause the overhaul in order to hold compromise negotiations on judicial reform with the opposition, but those talks fell apart last month. The coalition has since resumed advancing legislation on one aspect of the overhaul  — barring the courts from using the “reasonableness” yardstick to invalidate or even discuss government and ministerial decisions — without the consensual support Jerusalem assured Washington that it would seek. The bill is set to be enacted into law by the Knesset next week.

In the West Bank, the government has advanced more settlement construction over the past six months than has ever been approved in an entire calendar year, and granted significant authority over the process to pro-annexationist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. This week, Israeli authorities allowed ultranationalist settlers to illegally take over a Hebron property located in a closed military zone.

Yet this week also saw Biden choose to disclose that he was ending his holdout on meeting Netanyahu. That decision during a Monday phone call between the two leaders came just before the anti-overhaul protest movement was slated to hold its latest “day of resistance,” thus potentially undermining demonstrators the administration has hailed as exemplifying the strength of Israel’s democracy, and who have been directly urging the US to step in.

Netanyahu even appeared to pour salt on the wound, telling Biden during the call that the “reasonableness” law would indeed pass next week — the first element of the overhaul package to become law. The premier offered some solace in assuring the president that he would work to pass the remainder of the package with more broad support, a promise that may have rung hollow given that Netanyahu made the same commitment vis-à-vis the “reasonableness” bill.

File: US President Joe Biden meets then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (right) at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. At left is Secretary of State Antony Blinken; 2nd-left is US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. (GPO)

Yet US officials who spoke with The Times of Israel after the phone call stood by the decision to take the meeting. They explained that rather than a gift for Netanyahu, the offer was announced due to intense scrutiny around Biden’s supposed snub, which had shifted the narrative away from focusing on the policies of the hardline Israeli coalition.

“It was becoming about us, which is not what we wanted,” said one senior US official. “Now, we’ve taken the issue off the table.”

The non-invite had threatened to overshadow President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Washington even before his Tuesday arrival, with the Hebrew-language media lasering in on any hint of a crack in the US-Israel alliance. The administration had thought that having Herzog, a figurehead with little political power, hold his second White House meeting in less than nine months and deliver the second-ever speech to a joint session of Congress by an Israeli president would have demonstrated the strength of the US-Israel relationship. But media attention has focused largely on Netanyahu’s absence, said a second source familiar with the matter.

Still, the source added that the White House was careful not to offer a time or place for the meeting, likening the proposal to the one US Secretary of State Antony Blinken extended to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in February when Washington was working to convince Ramallah to withdraw its support for a UN Security Council resolution censuring Israeli settlement building. That meeting has yet to materialize and no word has been uttered by the White House regarding when it might happen.

In Netanyahu’s case, Biden officials have sufficed with saying that the meeting will be held in the US in the fall, raising speculation that it will be one of the many sit-downs the US president holds with foreign leaders on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s high-level week in September.

Unlike the Israeli readout on the Biden-Netanyahu call, a White House statement made no mention of a meeting invitation. Asked about the planned meeting, US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby was quick to point out that it “doesn’t mean that… we have less concerns over these judicial reforms or less concerns over some of the extremist activities and behavior by some members of the Netanyahu cabinet.”

A police water cannon fires on anti-overhaul protesters in Tel Aviv, on July 11, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The senior US official who spoke with The Times of Israel added that Biden’s agreement to meet Netanyahu should not be read as Biden’s acquiescence to Netanyahu’s decision to unilaterally pass the first piece of overhaul legislation. The official acknowledged that the US was not going to fight Israel on specific pieces of legislation, but “jamming it through unilaterally hasn’t really worked out that well for him either,” they said, referring to the impact that the protest movement has had on the country’s economy and the preparedness of its military.

The second source admitted that there were also domestic political considerations at play for Biden, who doesn’t want to be seen as excessively butting heads with Israel as the 2024 presidential campaign picks up.

The source declined to say whether the administration had received anything in return from Netanyahu in exchange for the meeting.

A separate senior US administration official who briefed reporters after the call pointed to a recent Israeli cabinet decision to prevent the PA’s collapse. But even that official acknowledged that Netanyahu’s government had merely agreed to “consider new steps to support Palestinian livelihood” and has yet to actually approve anything.

In February, Netanyahu’s office leaked a plan for a number of moves to bolster the PA’s finances and ease its tax burden. But despite a senior Israeli National Security Council official saying in April that the measures had received final approval, those moves have yet to be fully implemented, a Palestinian official told The Times of Israel on Monday.

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