‘Irish optimism’? Biden touts a Saudi deal; Netanyahu raises expectations even higher

In 2020, the Saudis denied the PM had flown in to meet with MBS; this time the crown prince is on board. So how does Netanyahu think he can square the domestic political circle?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

US President Joe Biden (right) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US President Joe Biden (right) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

From the get-go, it was clear that US President Joe Biden, having refused to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for almost nine months, was reverting to “my friend Bibi” mode.

Even as the anti-overhaul protesters rallied in their hundreds outside New York City’s Intercontinental Hotel, warning that the prime minister is bent on destroying Israeli democracy by crushing the independence of the judiciary, Biden greeted Netanyahu on Wednesday with a four-times repeated “welcome” and the offer of a White House get-together “by the end of the year.”

The president had said in March that Netanyahu needed to “walk away” from his planned judicial overhaul package. The prime minister instead enacted its first component in July, barring the courts from using the “reasonableness” measure to review and if needed strike down government and ministerial decisions. And he stressed as recently as Monday that he still intends to pass the core legislation, to remake and politicize the process by which Israel chooses its judges — something he disingenuously told Elon Musk was a “minor correction.”

But while Biden, in his opening public remarks, reminded Netanyahu of the imperative to uphold the “democratic values that lie at the heart of our partnership, including checks and balances in our systems,” and Netanyahu responded with the vague pledge that Israel’s commitment to democracy “will never change,” the president was plainly not primarily focused on publicly haranguing Netanyahu over the issue.

Rather, he was telling Netanyahu, and the people of Israel back home, that the modern Jewish state’s dream and goal of normalized relations in the region, advanced under “previous administrations,” could be widened further — as evidenced, for example, by the newly declared plan for an economic “corridor” linking India to Europe via, crucially, Saudi Arabia and Israel. “I think it’s a big deal, and we’re working on a lot more together,” said Biden.

And in case anybody had missed the point, he was still more explicit in his final remarks: “I suffer from, oxymoron, Irish optimism. 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?”

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, left, and US President Joe Biden, right, shake hands next to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, September 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Pool)

Appealing to Netanyahu’s sense of legacy — including by twice invoking founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion — rather than his short-term political survival concerns, the president was essentially presenting the prime minister with a choice. If the Trump administration’s groundbreaking Abraham Accords saw Netanyahu, however reluctantly, opt for normalization with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and, later, Morocco, rather than the annexation of the settlements and much more of the West Bank, the Biden Saudi plan would appear to require Netanyahu to forgo further radical overhaul legislation, make potentially wrenching concessions to the Palestinians, and quite possibly lose his current hardline coalition in the process.

Far-right Religious Zionism party leader and finance minister Bezalel Smotrich has reportedly told Netanyahu in recent days that a “peace for peace” agreement with the Saudis would be just fine; not so a “land for peace” deal involving relinquishing parts of the biblical Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians. In a letter publicized earlier Wednesday, 12 members of Netanyahu’s own Likud party made the same point, insisting: “No concessions on the homeland.”

And yet Netanyahu raised expectations still further, as the president presumably knew he would since the public elements of such meetings are generally closely coordinated. He positively gushed, in response to Biden’s Irish optimism, that “under your leadership, Mr. President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia.”

But not only that.

“I think such a peace would go a long way, first, to advance the end of the Arab-Israel conflict, achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state, and advance a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” he predicted. “This is something within our reach. I believe that working together, we can make history.”

Full text: Biden and Netanyahu’s public remarks at their New York meeting

Netanyahu habitually tells the people he’s dealing with what they want to hear, without always delivering, and he is at a particularly desperate juncture right now — domestically and internationally.

He was certainly saying what the US president wanted to hear. But for all his Biden-encouraging enthusiasm, it is beyond hard to believe that Netanyahu could square the circle in the current political reality — to lead Israel to peace with a Saudi Arabia that champions Palestinian statehood, at the helm of a coalition overwhelmingly opposed to any substantial concessions to the Palestinians, much less a two-state solution.

It is possible, however, that he thinks he could put together a different government, including current opposition parties and legislators, with or without the resort to new elections, if it became evident that his euphoric talk of advancing genuine Arab-Israeli peace and Israeli-Islamic reconciliation was indeed “something within our reach.”

He may also believe that Riyadh can be persuaded to reduce, or protractedly postpone, its demands on the Palestinians’ behalf.

In November 2020, Netanyahu and the then-head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, flew to Saudi Arabia for a clandestine meeting with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. News of the trip leaked, and Saudi officials confirmed it. But the Saudi foreign minister was adamant that no such meeting had taken place.

Underlining the coordination evidently in play three years later, by contrast, the same bin Salman said in an interview soon after the Biden-Netanyahu sit-down that “every day we get closer” to normalizing ties with Israel.

An analyst on Israel’s Channel 12 news speculated on Wednesday night that when Biden spoke of inviting Netanyahu to Washington by the end of the year, the president was thinking not of a one-on-one in the Oval Office, but of a signing ceremony “in the Rose Garden or on the White House lawn.”

And the fact is that the president may not have much longer than that for a breakthrough, given the imminent demands of the next presidential election campaign. Netanyahu is hardly blessed for time either, in a country he has misled to unprecedented internal division, as he walks the tightrope between the dictates of the coalition partners he empowered, the implacability of the justice minister he appointed, and the potential constitutional crisis should the High Court strike down the “reasonableness” law sometime between now and its mid-January deadline.

“If you and I, 10 years ago, were talking about normalization with Saudi Arabia…,” said the US president to the Israeli prime minister in New York on Wednesday.

Wherever it leads, and however ambitious and improbable, that’s exactly what they are now publicly doing. And so are the Saudis.

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