Biden, Netanyahu mend fences with Saudi deal in mind


Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu have met to smooth over months of tension, eyeing a deal to normalize Israel's ties with Saudi Arabia despite U.S. concerns over the state of Israeli democracy.

Biden said the pair had a "candid, constructive conversation" in New York, their first talks since the Israeli prime minister was reelected in December at the head of a hard-right government.

The fence-mending meeting comes as the U.S. president pushes Netanyahu to agree on a potentially historic deal to end decades of enmity with Riyadh, one of Washington's main regional allies.

And while Netanyahu was not hosted at the White House this time due to Biden's concerns over his government's controversial judicial overhaul, he won a coveted invitation to Washington later this year.

The 80-year-old Biden and 73-year-old Netanyahu leaned forward in their chairs to shake hands against a backdrop of U.S. and Israeli flags as the meeting began on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

Biden said he would discuss "hard issues" with Netanyahu. The White House said afterwards that he "reiterated his concern about any fundamental changes to Israel's democratic system."

But the U.S. president focused on rapprochement instead of reproach, telling Netanyahu that "even where we have some differences, my commitment to Israel, as you know, is ironclad."

- 'Historic peace' -

Behind the smooth talk lay the tantalizing possibility of an Israeli-Saudi deal, which Washington sees as a way of stabilizing the Middle East and shoring up its influence against Iran.

"I think that under your leadership, Mr President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia," Netanyahu said.

"Such a peace would go a long way for us 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."

Biden himself appeared to have an eye on history as he contemplated such a deal, which U.S. officials said could include security guarantees for Saudi Arabia.

"If you and I, 10 years ago, were talking about normalization with Saudi Arabia, I think we'd look at each other like, 'Who's been drinking what?'" added Biden -- who is teetotal.

Key questions remain however about a deal to establish formal ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia -- especially what it would mean for the Palestinians.

A U.S. administration official said there was a "common understanding" that such a deal would mean "compromise" and "very hard things" on all sides.

- 'Extremist' -

The U.S. and Israeli leaders said they also agreed on the need to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Tehran denies it is doing so and says its nuclear program is peaceful.

Netanyahu meanwhile sought to reassure Biden on the judicial reform row, saying Israel would "uphold the values that both our proud democracies cherish."

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.

Democrat Biden previously described Netanyahu's government as "one of the most extremist" in Israeli history, and criticized plans for judicial reform that have sparked mass protests in Israel.

Several hundred people demonstrated outside the U.S. embassy branch building in Tel Aviv as the leaders met in New York.

"It is time to stop this legal coup," demonstrator Uri Ashery told AFP.

Ties with Washington had meanwhile been further strained by the Israeli government's expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.

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

But the warm statements after months of tensions reflected the fact that "neither Biden nor Netanyahu can afford a bad meeting," Aaron David Miller, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, said in a commentary.

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