US President Joe Biden on Monday agreed to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the United States, after twice refusing to host him in the White House.
The two leaders spoke by phone after months of increasing friction over Israel’s judicial overhaul process, Iran and accelerated West Bank settlement activity.
The Biden-Netanyahu call came as President Isaac Herzog is set to visit the White House on Tuesday and to address a joint session of Congress, celebrating 75 years of ties between the two countries.
The warm welcome underscored the absence of a White House invitation for Netanyahu.
Just last week Biden called the current Israeli government “the most extreme” in 50 years, citing its ministers’ support for expanding West Bank settlements its opposition to a Palestinian state.
There are also tensions over Biden’s push to conclude an agreement with Iran to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power. Israel believes the tentative deal would not be nearly strong enough to halt Iran’s push to produce atomic weapons.
Netanyahu-Biden meeting could take place on UNGA sidelines
The Prime Minister’s Office did not say whether the Netanyahu-Biden meeting would take place at the White House, and there was speculation that it could take place on the sidelines of high-level sessions at the UN General Assembly in New York this fall.
The meeting would take place in the US, and Netanyahu had agreed to accept the invitation, the Prime Minister’s Office said. A suitable date for the meeting would be coordinated with US officials, it added.
Netanyahu updated Biden on the expected passage next week in the Knesset of the reasonableness bill, which is part of the package of judicial overhaul legislation. He assured Biden that consensus talks would be held over the summer on other overhaul bills, even though the reasonableness bill is moving forward without consensus.
In a briefing with reporters in Washington after the call, US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that “Biden remains concerned over [Israel’s] judicial reform and the extremist activity and behavior of some members of Netanyahu’s cabinet.”
“The president had a chance to reiterate our concerns about all that in his phone call,” Kirby said.
He underscored the strong relationship between the two men. “These are two leaders that know each other and have known each for a long time,” said Kirby as he attributed the strong comments Biden has made to the closeness between the two leaders.
“As friends can and friends should they speak honestly and openly, forthrightly and candidly,” Kirby said.
“President Biden has done that and he has done that publicly with respect to judicial reform and he will continue to do that” including in his conversation with Herzog in Washington, Kirby said.
Biden has clarified that “We stand for Israel. We stand for the Israeli people, and we stand for Israel’s democracy,” Kirby stated.
“We want to see that democracy and the hopes, and the dreams of all Israeli people and all their aspirations met through strong viable democratic institutions that are built on consensus and compromise,” he added.
Biden “stressed the need to take measures to maintain the viability of a two-state solution and improve the security situation in the West Bank.
“To that end, he welcomed Israel’s willingness to consider new steps to support Palestinian livelihoods, and recognized promising steps by the Palestinian Authority to reassert security control in Jenin and other areas of the West Bank,” Kirby said.
He noted, however, that Biden also expressed concern about continued settlement growth and called on all parties to refrain from further unilateral measures.”
Israel in the last months has advanced plans for 5,700 new settler homes and has accelerated the process of approval for such construction.
The phone call comes amid an increase in Israeli-Palestinian violence. Netanyahu and Biden discussed the importance of stabilizing the volatile situation in the West Bank, particularly following the IDF’s two-day military campaign to destroy terrorist infrastructure in Jenin earlier this month.
The two leaders also agreed to hold a meeting of the Forum of Five, such as the ones that occurred earlier this year in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh with representatives from Egypt, Jordan, the US, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority.
In addition, Netanyahu and Biden talked about expanding the Abraham Accords to include normalization deals between Israel and other Arab countries,
Both Kirby and the Prime Minister’s Office, which also issued a statement after the meeting, attempted to downplay the tensions between the US and Israel over Iran.
Biden “underscored his iron-clad, unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and condemned recent acts of terror against Israeli citizens.
“The two consulted on our close coordination to counter Iran, including through regular and ongoing joint military exercises” and spoke of how the “US-Israel partnership remains a cornerstone in preventing Iran from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Kirby said.
Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.