Visiting US official discusses Saudi deal with Bennett, Gantz

Settling on UN sidelines meeting, US said to tell PM he’ll get Oval Office follow-up

After sufficing with lower-profile sit-down next week, US officials assure Netanyahu he’ll meet Biden at White House later this year, though they want to see how overhaul unfolds

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-US vice president Joe Biden, in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-US vice president Joe Biden, in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

US officials reportedly told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office that the premier will be invited to meet US President Joe Biden at the White House later this year, after Washington decided to suffice with a meeting between the two leaders on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly next week.

A second meeting within months could help blunt the blow for Netanyahu, who has been hoping for a higher-profile Oval Office sit-down with the president when he is in town to address the General Assembly next Friday. Netanyahu waited over seven months before Biden agreed to a meeting, amid Washington’s frustration over the hardline Israeli government’s judicial overhaul and policies toward the Palestinians.

Prime ministers, including Netanyahu in previous terms, visited the White House much earlier on in their tenures.

A senior US official told the Axios news site Tuesday that the White House wants to see how things unfold with the judicial overhaul before extending an invitation for a follow-up meeting between Netanyahu and Biden in the Oval Office.

The High Court of Justice on Tuesday held an unprecedented 13-hour hearing to discuss the constitutionality of the first piece of overhaul legislation passed by Netanyahu’s coalition in July, but is not expected to issue a decision for weeks, if not months.

But with Netanyahu and many in his coalition refusing to state that they’ll abide by the court if the latter chooses to strike down the law, the White House was apparently uncomfortable with the optics of an Oval Office meeting.

15 Supreme Court justices at the first judicial overhaul hearing in Jerusalem, September 12, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

There still was a long back-and-forth in the White House over where to hold the sit-down, with some Biden aides pushing for it to be held in the Oval Office.

But opponents of the higher-level setting noted that it could harm Biden politically among Democrats, a senior US official told Axios.

A second US official was quoted as saying that an Oval Office meeting would offer a false impression of business as usual when the president is still unhappy with Netanyahu’s policies, particularly regarding the overhaul.

A third US official said there were concerns among Biden aides that thousands of Israelis and American Jews would protest outside the White House, which would be a bad look for the president, as his aides have repeatedly praised the anti-overhaul activists.

Protests are still expected outside the UN General Assembly throughout Netanyahu’s time in New York next week.

The exact date of the Biden-Netanyahu meeting in New York has not yet been announced.

Protesters against the coalition’s judicial overhaul legislation march in the central city of Rehovot on September 2, 2023, carrying signs reading: “There is no education without democracy” (right) and “A lesson in democracy.” (Roby Yahav / Protest Organizers)

The US officials said, though, that the New York meeting will still give Biden the opportunity to discuss with Netanyahu how the prime minister intends to move forward with the overhaul as well as the US efforts to broker a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Relatedly, Channel 12 reported on Tuesday that US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf held undisclosed meetings with former prime minister Naftali Bennett and opposition party leader Benny Gantz in recent days to discuss the normalization effort.

Sources familiar with the talks told Channel 12 that the US was trying to gauge Israel’s redlines, beyond what has been conveyed by the Netanyahu government.

US officials have in recent weeks also met with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Opposition Leader Yair Lapid.

Lapid told the Americans he was vehemently opposed to allowing Saudi Arabia to carry out any nuclear enrichment on its soil.

The report said Gantz and Bennett were believed to have also highlighted the dangers of a regional nuclear race if the Saudis were to obtain their own nuclear program.

Netanyahu will land in the US on Monday, first meeting with tech executives in San Francisco before arriving in New York on Tuesday and heading back to Israel on Saturday night.

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