Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed confidence that a “historic” US-brokered agreement to establish formal diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia can be reached, as the Israeli prime minister held talks with US President Joe Biden.
The meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Wednesday was the first between the two leaders since Netanyahu returned to power late last year.
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The Biden administration has been pushing to establish formal ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, two top US allies in the Middle East.
“I think that under your leadership, Mr President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” the Israeli prime minister told Biden ahead of their talks.
“I think such a peace would go a long way first to advance the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state, and advance a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This is something within our reach.”
The discussions came as Israel continues to intensify violence against Palestinians in the occupied territories, drawing criticism from Palestinian rights defenders who have urged Biden to hold Israel accountable for abuses.
But on Wednesday, the US president called Netanyahu a “friend” and heaped praise on Israel.
“You’ve heard me say many times: Were there no Israel, we’d have to invent one, and I mean it,” Biden said.
He also lauded a newly announced initiative to create an economic corridor from India to Europe, including by rail through Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. “It’s a big deal,” he said.
Few Arab states have recognised Israel since its establishment in 1948, but former US President Donald Trump’s administration helped secure agreements to establish relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020.
Sudan also agreed to join the so-called normalisation deals, known as the Abraham Accords.
Amid Israeli leaders’ calls for a similar pact with Saudi Arabia, Saudi officials have said Riyadh is sticking by the Arab Peace Initiative. That plan conditions normalisation with Israel on its withdrawal from Arab territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state, as well as finding a “fair solution” to the plight of Palestinian refugees.
In addition to the normalisation campaign, the Biden administration is pushing to include Israel in its Visa Waiver Program, which would allow Israelis to travel visa free to the US despite concerns about Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinian Americans.
Despite their continued alliance, US-Israeli relations have been marked by recent friction between Biden and Netanyahu.
The US president publicly clashed with Netanyahu earlier this year over the Israeli prime minister’s push to overhaul Israel’s judiciary, a move that his liberal critics say would weaken the rule of law in the country.
On Wednesday, Biden alluded to Netanyahu’s judicial plan, which has been put on hold for months. “Today, we’re going to discuss some of the hard issues,” Biden said.
“And that is upholding democratic values that lie at the heart of our partnership, including checks and balances in our systems and preserving the path to a negotiated two-state solution.”
Meanwhile, the US government has criticised Israel’s push to expand illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, as well as racist comments by ultranationalist ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet.
Biden also had not invited Netanyahu for an official visit to the White House, leading to criticism from US Republicans and speculation about tensions between the two leaders.
US officials regularly stress that American support for Israel, which leading rights groups have accused of maintaining a system of apartheid against Palestinians, is unwavering. Israel receives at least $3.8bn in US military aid annually.
Reporting from UN headquarters on Wednesday, Al Jazeera’s diplomatic editor James Bays said a meeting with Netanyahu has been a “hot potato” issue for the Biden administration.
“The compromise … was not to have the meeting in the White House but on the sidelines [of the UNGA] here,” Bays said.
As the two leaders met, Jewish-American and Israeli demonstrators protested in New York.
The protesters – several of whom were waving Israeli flags – rallied “to raise their objections” to the judicial overhaul plan, Al Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey reported.
“Many of the [demonstrators] that I spoke to say that they don’t think Biden should be even meeting with Netanyahu,” she added.
Later in the day, the White House said in a statement on the meeting that Biden invited Netanyahu to visit Washington, DC “before the end of the year to continue direct collaboration”.