Netanyahu meets Biden, other world leaders, in New York
Sep 27, 2023 | AIJAC staff
Update 09/23 #02
It seems fair to say that Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu has had a politically rocky year, since his Government introduced controversial judicial reform plans in January. However, even most of his Israeli critics are conceding that Netanyahu had a very successful trip to New York last week, where he not only finally got the meeting he has been seeking with US President Joe Biden and advanced hopes for an Israeli-Saudi normalisation deal, but also met numerous other world leaders, and addressed the UN General Assembly.
This Update is about the details of that trip.
We lead with a good summary of the five key accomplishments – and two problematic elements – of Netanyahu’s trip, from Tovah Lazoroff of the Jerusalem Post. She focuses on the positive signs for a Saudi breakthrough that came from Netanyahu, Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the trip, and on a significant softening of the tense US-Israel relationship over recent months. She also reviews achievements from the trip, including improved relations with Turkey, and some encouraging signs on the Palestinian front. For this good summary of everything that happened in Netanyahu’s intense diplomatic visit to New York in full, CLICK HERE.
Next up is some reporting from the Israeli press on what happened behind the scenes in the much-awaited Biden-Netanyahu meeting. This makes it clear that Saudi normalisation was the main focus – and there appears to be considerable optimism both from the Americans and Israelis that this could be achieved soon – but other issues were also canvassed, including US objections to the Israeli judicial reform proposals, Israeli-Palestinian relations, and new visa-free travel arrangements for Israelis visiting the US. The piece, by Itamar Eichner of Yediot Ahronot, a major Israeli daily, also looks at what the Israeli Government is saying about the meetings Netanyahu had with Turkey’s President Erdogan and Ukraine’s President Zelensky. For these details, CLICK HERE.
Finally, this Update includes a JTA report on Netanyahu’s UN General Assembly address (the full text of the address is here, while video is here.) It highlights how Netanyahu used a map of the Middle East to underscore the potential of an Israeli-Saudi deal, in the context of the existing Abraham Accords peace arrangments, and made some conciliatory remarks about possible progress on the Palestinian issue. The report also summarises Netanyahu’s remarks about the issue of artificial intelligence, another element of this speech apparently inspired by a trip Netanyahu took to Silicon valley before going to New York. For all the key takeaways from Netanyahu’s UN speech, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- More details on where the current speculation on an Israel-Saudi deal stands, and the key issues that need to be settled, from BICOM.
- One of the key issues in any Saudi normalisation deal is Riyadh’s demand for a full nuclear fuel cycle. Saudi Arabia has just agreed to enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency scrutiny of its program – Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute explains the detail.
- Some senior Israeli security analysts – including Jacob Nagel and Meir Ben Shabbat – are urging Israel not to agree to the Saudi nuclear demands in exchange for normalisation. Netanyahu, however, reportedly thinks an acceptable compromise is achievable on this and has asked Israeli nuclear experts to come up with one.
- Grant Rumley of the Washington Institute looks at the details of the defence relationship with the US the Saudis are asking for as part of the deal.
- An Israeli minister has just led the first-ever official Israeli delegation to Saudi Arabia to attend a UN conference there.
- Israel Foreign Minister Eli Cohen is claiming “six or seven” additional Muslim countries will also normalise relations with Israel after an agreement is reached with Saudi Arabia.
- Reports Israel is weighing what concessions it can offer to the Palestinians as part of a Saudi deal, given Saudi insistence on such concessions as part of any agreement.
- Netanyahu also met with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in New York and asked for a “change [in] the attitude of the organization’s institutions toward the State of Israel,”
- Netanyahu has reportedly been invited to meet Biden again at the White House before the end of the year. He has also been invited to visit Turkey.
- At the UN General Assembly last week, during Iranian President Raisi’s speech, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan staged a protest over Iran’s human rights abuses by holding up a photo of Mahsa Amini – the young woman who was killed in the custody of Iran’s morality police a year ago – and got himself ejected by a security guard. Here is Erdan’s account of why he did it, plus some comment on the incident from US-based writer and activist Bryan E. Leib.
- Academic analyst Jonathan Spyer explains the real story behind the bloody fighting between Palestinian factions in Lebanon’s Ain Al-Hilwe refugee camp.
- Palestinian affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh on the real reason why Hamas is pushing Gaza Palestinians to stage violent protests along the Gaza border over recent weeks.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Alana Schetzer discussing how Israeli aid to Morocco after the earthquake there earlier this month underscores the rapid development of Israel-Morocccan relations over the last three years.
- Oved Lobel’s analysis of the Australian Government’s rejection of most of the recommendations of the Senate inquiry report into the “Human rights implications of recent violence in Iran,” released in February.
- AIJAC media releases on the Federal Court judgment in the Brighton Secondary College antisemitism case in Victoria and the new sanctions on Iran announced by the Federal Government on Sept. 13.
- The tributes in the NSW parliament to AIJAC’s late Director of International and Community Affairs, Jeremy Jones AM, who passed away on Sept. 6.
Biden, Saudi talks, and AI: Netanyahu’s highs and lows from US trip – analysis
The absence of an Oval Office photo op almost seemed irrelevant against the sheer volume of Netanyahu’s diplomatic success.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “burning down da house,” read a protest sign on the streets of New York last week as the Israeli leader who is under fire at home and abroad made his first United States visit since taking office at the end of December.
Expectations were low given that from the start Netanyahu failed to achieve one of his most desired objectives, a visit with Biden in the Oval Office. The meeting that did take place in New York was confirmed only at the last moment.
The fact that Biden hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last Thursday almost seemed to underscore the point that he could have given that honor to Netanyahu, but didn’t.
When the whirlwind week ended, marked by Netanyahu’s address to the UN General Assembly, the absence of an Oval Office photo op almost seemed irrelevant against the sheer volume of diplomatic success.
Below is a list of five highs and two lows from Netanyahu’s week-long trip.
Saudi peace talks underway
This is the week it became clear that talks were underway in earnest for a quadrilateral deal between Washington and Riyadh that would include a normalization agreement for Israel and possibly an interim agreement with the Palestinians.
Last year when former Prime Minister Yair Lapid took the podium at the annual high-level portion of the new 77th UN General Assembly, the idea of Israeli-Saudi peace still seemed like more of a pipe dream.
“We call upon every Muslim country — from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia — to recognize that, and to come talk to us. Our hand is outstretched for peace,” Lapid said.
This year, talks are already underway.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Fox News that “every day” Israel and his country are closer to an agreement.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a Fox News interview said his country was drawing closer “every day” to a normalisation deal with Israel (Youtube Screenshot)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen has said he believed that such a deal could be reached by March 2024 and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer said it could happen even before that.
When Netanyahu spoke at the start of the 78th UNGA session last week and said that Israel was on the “cusp” of a “dramatic breakthrough” with Saudi Arabia, he was not just being poetic.
His words were reflective of a reality that could soon be within his and Israel’s grasp.
US-Israel tensions soften
Netanyahu and Biden spoke face-to-face.
The two men have been friends for 40 years and have met more times than they can count.
So Biden’s past refusal to issue the customary invitation to the White House granted all prime ministers after the formation of a new government generated endless headlines and sparked speculation of a new low in Israeli-US ties.
Biden himself had been blunt that he had not invited Netanyahu due to fears that the government’s judicial reform plan would harm Israeli democracy.
Netanyahu had hoped the meeting would be at the White House and found himself instead with Biden in a New York hotel not far from the UN.
Protestors outside beat drums and shouted “democracy.” Biden himself spoke of the importance of “democracy” in his public remarks. Netanyahu pledged his commitment to democracy and to Saudi peace under the president’s leadership.
Inside the room, the location of the conversation no longer seemed to matter, with Biden signaling a rapprochement of sorts by publicly inviting Netanyahu to the White House by the end of the year.
This does not mean of course that the US-Israeli tensions are gone. If anything, they will likely continue, as the two men remain at odds over democracy and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
But the decision to meet marked a turning point in which Biden is likely to place the focus on other matters such as Israeli security and a Saudi deal and less on democracy.
The pending Saudi deal was the main focus of their conversation which lasted for an hour and was largely an intimate conversation between just the two men.
It marked the most high-level in-person conversation to date between Israel and the US about the deal, the weight of which is likely to overshadow the democracy debate and become the main focal point of US-Israeli relations for the coming months.
Turkish ties warm
The warming Israeli-Turkish ties received a boost as Netanyahu held his first-ever meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the UNGA last week.
For the Turkish leader who has often thundered against Israel, particularly for its treatment of the Palestinians, this is only his second meeting with an Israeli Prime Minister since 2008. The last one took place with Lapid last year.
Israeli-Turkish relations fell apart in 2010 when Netanyahu was Prime Minister during a previous term after 10 Turkish citizens were killed after the IDF boarded a Gaza-bound flotilla ship named the Mavi Marmara.
They have been restored in recent years as Turkey has sought partnership with Israel, which is developing regional plans to export its natural gas.
The meeting, given Netanyahu’s history with the Mavi Marmara, is especially significant. The mood was positive enough that Netanyahu joked about the fact that they had both worn red ties, as he seemed to cement the new ties with Turkey, which is a regional powerhouse.
The status of Jerusalem was slightly elevated as the Democratic Republic of the Congo pledged to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Paraguay renewed its pledge to do so as well.
To date, only five countries have Jerusalem embassies: the United States, Guatemala, Honduras, Kosovo and Papa New Guinea.
Most of Israel’s allies have their embassies in Tel Aviv and the center of the country to reflect the international community’s refusal to recognize that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. Many nations do not recognize that any part of Jerusalem, even West Jerusalem, is within the country’s sovereign borders.
It’s significant for Israel that Congo and Paraguay spoke of a Jerusalem embassy on the sidelines of the UN, a body that has passed numerous resolutions disavowing Israeli and Jewish ties to Jerusalem.
Palestinian interim deal?
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on the United Nations to recognize Palestine as a state when he addressed the UNGA on Wednesday.
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan on Saturday at the UNGA on Saturday called for a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 lines and did not mention a normalization deal with Israel, as Netanyahu did.
At the UNGA last year Lapid called for two states for two peoples. This year Netanyahu did not mention two states, nor would his government support it.
Despite this, Israelis this week including in New York have spoken of a breakthrough with the Palestinians by which they have softened their demands on Israel to pave the way for a Saudi deal and would be open to an interim agreement.
In an interview with Kan News on Friday, even Lapid who is the opposition leader, lauded the moment.
“Something interesting is happening here,” Lapid said. After 30 years of refusing to consider an interim deal with Israel, “suddenly in the midst of this event, they [the Palestinians] said they would agree to it,” he explained.
Global AI role
If Netanyahu’s priorities were measured by the path of his airplane, then the fact that he landed first in San Jose California speaks volumes about the importance he places on artificial intelligence’s role in the coming century both for Israel and the globe.
At Telsa headquarters, he met both with the company’s controversial CEO Elon Musk and other leading experts in AI to discuss its benefits and dangers as well as joint global strategies.
AI, he said, would wipe out disease and hunger but if not harnessed could also become an existential threat by generating wars and allowing for machines to control humans.
His statements about placing Israel at the forefront of this technology were a reminder not just that the Jewish state is also the start-up nation and leader in innovation, despite the controversy over its judicial reform.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed that one of Netanyahu’s strengths is his ability to perceive global trends early on and stay ahead of the curve, particularly with vaccination treatment.
Now he is attempting to do the same thing with AI by creating a directorate with the Prime Minister’s office and a global board of advisors to create a global blueprint for how nations can tackle the new technology.
During the trip, Netanyahu also had his first meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky since the Russian invasion. Tensions in the Israel-Ukraine relationship continue over Ukrainian requests for military aid from Israel. (Photo: Office of the President of Ukraine)
Ukrainian tensions persist
Among the more highly publicized moments of Netanyahu’s visit was his meeting in the basement of the UN with Zelensky.
It’s the first time the Ukrainian leader has met with Netanyahu since Russia invaded his country in February 2022.
Tensions have been high between the two countries as Israel has persistently refused to grant Ukraine’s request for defensive weapons against Russia. Even the civilian alert system that sounds an alarm against incoming missiles, which Israel has promised to send, has not yet arrived.
Netanyahu began his trip by attacking those who planned to demonstrate against his judicial reform plan in both California and New York.
It was a statement that appeared to his critics to delegitimize free speech and to equate those who oppose him with the enemies of the state.
Netanyahu and his supporters pushed back by explaining that such protests should not occur abroad while a prime minister is representing the country. But he never apologized for his remarks, which only stoked the fear among Israeli supporters that the country’s democracy was indeed in trouble.
Saudi Arabia, visas, an invitation to the White House: All the details about the Biden-Netanyahu conversation
After talking about ‘peace with the Palestinians’ as part of an agreement with Saudi Arabia, the prime minister made it clear to Biden that for him Ramallah is ‘part of the process’ – but does not have a veto over it; Also, Biden finally invited Netanyahu to Washington, and the visa waiver is soon to be announced
Yediot Ahronot, Sept. 21, 2023
The main focus of the Netanyahu-Biden private meeting in New York was promoting normalisation with Saudi Arabia (Screenshot from an Israeli Government Press Office video).
A senior Israeli political official said Wednesday in a press briefing after the meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Joe Biden that the private conversation between the two leaders lasted about an hour, and focused on “promoting peace and containing Iran.” The White House said that Biden invited Netanyahu to Washington, and clarified his concern about the lack of broad consensus over changes to the judicial system.
According to the source, the conversation dealt with the promotion of a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia “in detail,” and they agreed to continue dealing with the issue in the work teams of both countries.
“The conversation was warm and friendly, between two friends who have known each other for 40 years,” according to the source, in the shadow of the tension felt in the joint statement and the fact that the two did not meet for more than nine months after the establishment of the current government.
The source noted that the subject of the judicial overhaul came up during the private conversation. “Netanyahu said that the direction is to reach a consensus with parts of the opposition, or with the public,” said the senior political official. “Biden asked about the reform, but did not give his opinion.” The White House announced after the meeting that Biden stressed “his concern about any fundamental changes to Israel’s democratic system, absent the broadest possible consensus.”
However, at least according to the Israeli source, “the main part of the conversation dealt with the question of how to promote the normalization and peace agreement with Saudi Arabia. Not if, but how. We went into a lot of details. There is a desire to overcome the obstacles and we do it by working together. There is no other way.” He added that “there is an absolute unity between the positions of Israel and the US in relation to the issue of civilian nuclear power in Saudi Arabia.”
The White House in its readout of the meeting said that Biden invited Netanyahu to visit the White House before the end of this year.
The White House also addressed the growing tensions in the West Bank. “The President emphasized the need to take immediate measures to improve the security and economic situation, maintain the viability of a two-state solution, and promote a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. To that end, President Biden called on all parties to fulfill their commitments made during meetings held earlier this year in Aqaba, Jordan and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to include refraining from further unilateral measures,” according to readout. It also noted that Netanyahu and Biden will consult with the various countries and entities in the region to convene another summit like the ones held earlier this year in Sharm el-Sheikh and Aqaba.
Visa for Israelis – by the end of the month
The senior political official added that “the prime minister thanked the president for the planned visa exemption for Israelis, and it should be carried out. The Americans are supposed to announce it toward the end of the month. On September 28, the decision will be published, and the day before Secretary of State Antony Blinken is supposed to give it to the Secretary of Homeland Security. Israel has met all the required conditions and we believe it will happen.”
The senior political official also referred to Netanyahu’s unusual statement that normalization with Saudi Arabia would help promote peace with the Palestinians: “We are discussing these issues. Netanyahu told Biden that the Palestinians are part of the process – but they will not have a veto over it,” the official said. The source added that Israel is working toward “an agreement that both countries can live with and pass the threshold of maintaining Israeli security. On the nuclear issue, we see eye to eye, both on what we agree on and on what we don’t.”The political official emphasized that “the Palestinian issue is one of the difficulties on the way to an agreement. There is a goal here that three countries – Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia – want to reach. There is a great desire, but in the end it rises and falls on the small details – the process should be done discreetly, on several levels at the same time, against the backdrop of the question of whether it will promote security and the economy. The US wants there to be peace in the region and Israel is also interested in that. Iran is a party that is not interested in this peace, and Netanyahu pointed this out to President Biden, who is aware of its attempts to set the region on fire.”
However, the political source said that Netanyahu is not considering changes in the composition of the government if there is an agreement with Saudi Arabia – even though his partners Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich oppose the concessions that Riyadh demands on the subject of the Palestinians. “Anyone who wants to join the government is welcome. But not at anyone’s expense,” the official said.
The source noted that, contrary to the claims against Biden, “he was completely sharp” in the meeting with Netanyahu.”
At the same time, the senior political official also referred to Netanyahu’s meetings with billionaire Elon Musk, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelensky. The source stated that “the most important thing in Netanyahu’s meeting with Musk was the fact that he is “willing to make investments in Israel in a practical way. This is very great news for the Israeli economy and the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu’s meeting with Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his first in several years, focussed on possible energy deals and was seen as a sign of improving Israeli-Turkish relations (Photo: Avi Ohayon, Israel’s GPO)
The senior official also said that Netanyahu and Zelensky spoke at length about Israel’s continued assistance in the field of civil defense. “The meeting was positive,” he said. “All of Israel’s considerations were clarified. The prime minister did not smear anyone, he told the truth: ‘I can help up to this limit’. There is sincerity among the leaders, they do not try to sell what cannot be sold.”
Regarding Netanyahu’s first meeting with Erdogan in several years, the senior political official said that it focused on the issue of energy. “Netanyahu told Erdogan that the option of establishing a gas pipeline to Turkey is being considered, but no decision has yet been made,” the official said.
Netanyahu touts future accord with Saudi Arabia — and perhaps the Palestinians — in UN speech
He also used the end of his 25-minute speech to herald the benefits — and warn of the dangers — of artificial intelligence
By Ron Kampeas
JTA, September 22, 2023
Israeli PM Netanyahu’s address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 22, in which he used a map graphic to highlight the growing circle of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours, which he expressed hope Saudi Arabia might soon join (Photo: Office of the Israeli PM)
Benjamin Netanyahu used his address to the United Nations to tout the prospect of a diplomatic agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and to broach a topic that he has previously downplayed: Israeli-Palestinian peace.
He also used the end of his 25-minute speech to herald the benefits — and warn of the dangers — of artificial intelligence, largely reprising what he told tech mogul Elon Musk in a live streamed conversation earlier in the week. And he did not mention one burning issue that has preoccupied Israeli politics — and led to civil strife — all year: his effort to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court.
In the past, Netanyahu has used the address to the U.N. General Assembly to warn of the threat posed by a nuclear Iran — once famously brandishing a picture of a cartoon bomb to show how close the Iranians were to obtaining a nuclear weapon. He warned of Iran’s dangers on Friday again, and also brandished a prop.
But this time, the visual aid was meant to spread a more optimistic message — demonstrating the growing number of Middle Eastern countries with which Israel has signed normalization agreements.
“Peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia will truly create a new Middle East,” Netanyahu said, borrowing a phrase that the late Shimon Peres, one of Netanyahu’s former rivals, had used to discuss Israel-Palestinian peace.
Netanyahu added, “Now as the circle of peace expands, I believe that a real path towards a genuine peace with our Palestinian neighbors can finally be achieved.”
As he has in the past, Netanyahu sought in the speech to turn upside down what had long been the conventional wisdom — that Israeli-Palestinian peace must be a predicate for a broader peace in the Middle East. Israel’s 2020 normalization agreements with four Arab countries, called the Abraham Accords, disproved that theory, he said.
“For years, my approach to peace was rejected by the so-called experts. Well, they were wrong,” he said. “The Abraham Accords heralded the dawn of a new age of peace.”
While holding his map, Netanyahu used a red marker to draw a potential trade corridor from India to Europe, with Saudi Arabia and Israel as hubs — a plan proposed by Biden that Netanyahu has enthusiastically endorsed.
“We will not only bring down barriers between Israel and our neighbors, we will build a new corridor of peace and prosperity that connects Asia through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel to Europe,” he said. “This is an extraordinary change, a monumental change and another pivot of history.”
Palestinian demands have featured prominently in the discussions surrounding a possible Saudi-Israeli deal. A day before Netanyahu spoke to the United Nations, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in his speech said that peace with the Palestinians was a prerequisite for a broader peace. This year, Saudi leadership helped organize a side conference at the United Nations aimed at reviving the establishment of a Palestinian state as a realistic goal.
And according to the White House readout of Biden’s meeting with Netanyahu on Wednesday, the president told Netanyahu that it was essential to preserve prospects for Palestinian statehood, particularly in the face of escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence this year. The president called on both sides to refrain from “unilateral measures,” which includes Israel halting the West Bank settlement expansion championed by Netanyahu’s far-right partners.
Netanyahu opposes the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and has often cast Israeli-Palestinian relations as a problem to be managed rather than solved. His far-right coalition partners vehemently oppose Palestinian statehood and have said they would bring down the government if he concedes anything significant to the Palestinians. On the map he displayed, the borders of Israel included all of the West Bank as well as Gaza, the Palestinian coastal territory Israel ceded in 2005.
Netanyahu made clear in his speech that he does not believe the Palestinian leadership is ready for peace, condemning in particular a recent speech by Abbas that was widely decried as antisemitic.
“For peace to prevail, the Palestinians must stop spewing Jew hatred, and finally reconcile themselves to the Jewish state,” he said. “By that I mean not only to the existence of the Jewish state, but to the right of the Jewish people to have a state of their own in their historic homeland, the land of Israel.”
But Friday’s speech still marked a shift, in projecting an Israeli-Palestinian deal as a possible outcome of normalization with other Arab countries. He said the word “Palestinian” more than a dozen times throughout the speech.
“There are many hurdles on the path to peace,” he said. “But I’m committed to doing everything I can to overcome these hurdles, to forge a better future for Israel and all the peoples in our region.”
Netanyahu devoted the last six minutes of the speech to artificial intelligence, a topic at the center of his discussions earlier this week with Musk, the owner of X, the platform previously known as Twitter. Netanyahu said it was critical to seize control of the direction the technology takes before it is too late, repeating arguments he made in his conversation with Musk.
“The disruption of democracy, the manipulation of minds, the decimation of jobs, the proliferation of crime, and the hacking of all the systems that facilitate modern life — yet even more disturbing, is the potential eruption of AI driven wars,” he said. “Behind this, perhaps, looms an even greater threat, once the stuff of science fiction: that self-taught machines could eventually control humans instead of the other way around.”
He called for international cooperation to address the threat posed by A.I.
“We must do so quickly,” he said. “And we must do so together. We must ensure that the promise of an A.I. utopia does not turn into an A.I. dystopia.”