During a much-anticipated Wednesday meeting on the UN sidelines, US President Joe Biden will press Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to present significant concessions that he is willing to make to the Palestinians in order to help secure a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.
But with Netanyahu constrained by far-right coalition partners who oppose steps toward Palestinian statehood, he will aim to limit talk of gestures for Ramallah to economic aid for the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, the official said.
The PA, in talks with Saudi and American officials, has raised its desire for US backing for recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, the US reopening its consulate in Jerusalem that historically served Palestinians, the scrapping of congressional legislation characterizing the PLO as a terror organization, the Israeli transfer of West Bank territory to Palestinian control, and the razing of illegal outposts in the West Bank, according to officials familiar with the matter.
Channel 13 reported Tuesday that Netanyahu briefed his security cabinet about the normalization effort last week and told ministers that a deal will likely require gestures toward the Palestinians — something he has been reluctant to admit publicly, ostensibly not wanting to give credence to the demand. The prime minister also discussed the effort privately with far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has rejected the notion of offering the Palestinians anything in the context of a potential Saudi normalization deal.
The Biden administration has long maintained that its efforts to expand Israel’s integration in the region will not come at the expense of the Palestinians and has even argued that Arab countries’ boosted ties with Jerusalem be leveraged to advance a two-state solution.
The White House also recognizes that it will need major progress toward that end in order to convince enough progressive Democrats to back the normalization effort, which will likely include a major defense pact with Saudi Arabia — a country with a checkered human rights record.
Wednesday’s meeting will be the first between the two leaders since Netanyahu returned to power last December. No newly elected prime minister has waited longer for a meeting with a US president since Levi Eshkol in 1964.
Netanyahu's meeting with Biden delayed more than any newly elected PM since Eshkol in 1964.
*Some PMs listed below served non-consecutive/multiple appointments. The graph shows the longest gap between new government formation and their first visit to the United States per PM. pic.twitter.com/uwpnLjnQuO
— David Makovsky (@DavidMakovsky) September 19, 2023
US-Israel ties rapidly deteriorated following the establishment of Netanyahu’s hardline government, which unveiled a radical plan to overhaul the judiciary days after being sworn in.
Biden has pushed back aggressively on the plan, warning that it will harm Israel’s democratic foundations and the shared values that serve as the bedrock of the bilateral relationship. Israel has also angered the US with its policies in the West Bank, where it has approved more settlement construction in six months than any government has in an entire year, against the backdrop of violent tensions with the Palestinians that have led to a death count not seen since the Second Intifada.
After making Netanyahu wait nearly nine months for a meeting, Biden decided to relegate the sit-down to the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, ostensibly not wanting to elevate it to an Oval Office setting when the premier has shown no intention of shelving the judicial overhaul.
Nonetheless, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Monday that Biden is planning to invite Netanyahu to a follow-up meeting at the White House in the coming months as he works to gain momentum for an agreement with Saudi Arabia.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is also considering a trip to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia next month as part of that effort, two Israeli officials said.
In exchange for normalizing ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia is asking for a major defense pact with the US, significant arms deals and US cooperation in establishing a civilian nuclear program on Saudi soil. Washington, in turn, is looking for Riyadh to pare down its economic and military dealings with China and Russia.
According to a report Tuesday in The New York Times, American and Saudi officials have been discussing a potential defense alignment modeled on the US agreements with Japan and South Korea, with the United States and Saudi Arabia pledging to provide military support if one of them is attacked in the region or on Saudi soil.