1 of 5 | Israeli protesters demonstrate in front of the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Wednesday. Hundreds of protesters rallying against Netanyahu's judicial reforms demonstrated in New York City's Times Square on Wednesday, as well. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo
Sept. 20 (UPI) -- U.S. President Joe Biden met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on Wednesday for the first time since tensions emerged over Netanyahu's efforts to overhaul Israel's judiciary.
The two leaders reaffirmed their bond over democratic values, vowed to improve Middle East relations and planned to meet again in Washington, D.C.
"Today, we're going to discuss some of the hard issues. 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, and ensuring that Iran never, never acquires a nuclear weapon," Biden said before the private meeting.
"Because even where we have some differences, my commitment to Israel, as you know, is ironclad. I think without Israel, there's not a Jew in the world that's secure. I think Israel is essential," the president added.
The highly anticipated meeting took place at a New York City hotel, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, where the two leaders crossed paths Tuesday and agreed to have a sit-down the next day.
Hundreds of protesters, rallying against Netanyahu's judicial reforms, demonstrated in New York City's Times Square as Biden extended a delayed invitation to Netanyahu to meet again "in Washington by the end of the year."
"Today I had the honor of meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, a friend for over 40 years. We discussed the immense potential of an economic corridor linking Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, with Israel as a pivotal hub," Netanyahu wrote in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Before Wednesday's meeting, which is the first between the two leaders since Netanyahu returned to office last December, Biden also put pressure on the prime minister to seek a new peace deal with Palestinians in an effort to improve relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
"I think that under your leadership, Mr. President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia," Netanyahu said.
"And 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," Netanyahu added. "This is something within our reach."
However, such a pact with Biden would be problematic for Netanyahu politically, as hardliners in his ruling party were likely to oppose any concessions or perceived steps toward Palestinian statehood.
Netanyahu promised Biden that Israel will uphold its democratic values.
"So I want to reassert here before you, Mr. President, that one thing is certain and one thing will never change, and that is Israel's commitment to democracy," Netanyahu said.
"We will continue to uphold the values that both our proud democracies cherish. And I think that, working together, we'll realize the promise, roll back the dangers, and bring a better future for our region and the world."
As the Israeli leader headed into the private meeting, he was expected to try to limit the discussion to economic aid from Israel to the Palestinian Authority, whose leadership recently met with U.S. and Saudi officials on establishing a permanent settlement in the West Bank.
Biden and Netanyahu were also expected to discuss a wide range of regional security issues and compare notes on ways to counter an increasingly aggressive Iran.
The meeting took place amid strained relations between Israel and the United States due to hardline policies that emerged after Netanyahu's latest rise to power in December, which have triggered growing instability throughout the region.
As a result, Biden delayed his invitation to Netanyahu to visit the White House, while other U.S. officials rebuffed sit-downs with members of the far-right Israeli government who were pushing to abolish Israel's judiciary because they said it wielded too much power.
During a March phone call, Biden urged Netanyahu to uphold democratic values in the region, and also called for Israelis and Palestinians to take "urgent, collaborative steps to enhance security coordination, condemn all acts of terrorism and maintain the viability of a two-state solution."
Following the call, Biden gave a statement outside the White House in which he openly criticized Netanyahu's judicial plan, which had sparked weeks of massive protests throughout Israel.
Israeli government leaders reacted sharply to Biden's words, accusing the United States of meddling in Israel's domestic policies and vowed Israel would not be influenced by Washington.
At the time, Biden said he was "very concerned" at what was taking place in Israel, and asserted that Netanyahu should "walk away" from the judicial proposal, saying the prime minister "cannot continue down this road."
Following Biden's remarks, the Israeli leader also posted a series of tweets assailing the United States, including one that said: "Israel is a sovereign country, which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends."
Despite the rancor, Biden has continued to indicate his "unwavering commitment to Israel's security" when he called Netanyahu on July 17 to discuss "a broad range of global and regional issues of mutual concern."
Netanyahu has not shown any willingness to back down from the judicial plan, which was on hold as Israel's Supreme Court heard the first legal challenge to the proposal Sept. 12.
Under the plan, the Supreme Court would lose its ability to overturn laws passed by the Israeli parliament and allow for high court decisions to be overturned by a simple majority in the Knesset.
The plan would also allow politicians to leverage more authority to appoint judges as the legislation provides for Netanyahu's coalition to receive five of the high court's nine members, with only a simple majority needed to appoint judges to every court in Israel.
The administration has also called for government lawyers to be classified as political appointees, which would strip the attorney general's oversight authority.
Later Wednesday, Biden met with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva before joining a rally hosted by U.S. and Brazilian labor leaders to highlight rights for workers. After that, the president plans to attend a campaign reception with Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff before returning to the White House for the night.
Opponents of changes to the judiciary system in Israel gather in front of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on September 11, 2023, a day before the court is set to hear a landmark case on the law limiting the "reasonableness" standard. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo