Awkward meeting looms for Biden and Netanyahu

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets US President Joe Biden on Wednesday for the first time since being re-elected, in what promises to be a tense encounter between the two leaders.

Concerned by Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reforms, Biden has withheld an invite to the White House and the pair will instead meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly of New York.

They are also expected to discuss a potential deal to normalize ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which are both key US allies but share decades of bad blood.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said last week that one focus of the talks would be the “shared democratic values between the United States and Israel.”

Those values have looked anything but shared recently, with Democrat Biden describing Netanyahu’s hard-right government as “one of the most extremist” in Israeli history.

Relations between Netanyahu and the Biden administration have been rocky ever since the Israeli leader made his political comeback at the head of a coalition of hard-right and ultra-Orthodox parties in December.

Biden has strongly criticized Netanyahu’s bid to reform the judiciary, which opponents describe as a threat to democracy in Israel and a step towards authoritarianism.

Israeli artists and intellectuals including writer David Grossman recently wrote an open letter urging Biden not to meet Netanyahu — an issue for the Democratic president, who needs the liberal establishment onside ahead of elections next year.

‘Deterring Iran’ 

In a seeming snub to Netanyahu, Biden in July hosted the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, a political moderate, in the Oval Office.

There was even a squabble earlier this year after Netanyahu said he had been invited to the White House — but the White House then said merely that the pair would meet “in the United States.”

Ties have been further strained by the Israeli government’s expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.

But despite the tensions between Biden and Netanyahu, there has been no real sign of the United States loosening long-term support for the Jewish state, its key ally in the Middle East.

A key topic on Wednesday will be the Biden administration’s push for Israel and Saudi Arabia to finally normalize relations. Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, has long refused to recognize Israel.

The White House’s Sullivan hinted as much, saying that Netanyahu and Biden would discuss a “vision for a more stable and prosperous and integrated region.”

As a sweetener, Biden may offer Saudi Arabia an ambitious security pact like those he recently gave to Japan and South Korea, the New York Times reported.

The leaders would also “compare notes on effectively countering and deterring Iran,” another key topic for a US administration keen to counter Tehran’s regional presence and nuclear ambitions.

Netanyahu met tech tycoon Elon Musk on Monday, urging him to fight anti-Semitism on his X platform, formerly known as Twitter.

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