The Jerusalem Post

For how long can Netanyahu keep the judicial reform out of the spotlight?

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Joe Biden on Wednesday in New York.  (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Joe Biden on Wednesday in New York.

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The Biden-Netanyahu meeting put Saudi normalization into the spotlight, but how long will judicial reform stay out of it?

During his nearly 16 years as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu frequently traveled to the US and held numerous meetings with US presidents.

Few meetings, however, garnered as much pre-meeting attention and speculation about timing, optics, and location as Wednesday’s get-together with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly at Biden’s Manhattan hotel.

For months, politicians and pundits have been obsessing over when the meeting would take place, where it would take place, as well as what it meant that it had not yet taken place and that it would not be taking place in Washington.

Rarely has so much been said and written about a meeting that was not happening.


To listen to the media was to believe that for Netanyahu, a meeting with the president in the Oval Office was nothing less than the Holy Grail, and that the lack of such a meeting was the equivalent of a groom being jilted under the huppah.

US President Joe Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the 78th UN General Assembly in New York City, US, September 20, 2023.  (credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
US President Joe Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the 78th UN General Assembly in New York City, US, September 20, 2023. (credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

Critics of Netanyahu and his opponents argued that Biden’s snub of Netanyahu showed the degree to which Israel’s star had fallen in the US, that relations between the two countries reached a new nadir, and that the president’s treatment of the prime minister was a sign of Biden’s disapproval of the far-right elements in Netanyahu’s government and of the government’s judicial reform plan.

At times, these critics seemed to take satisfaction in seeing their political rival scorned, seemingly oblivious to the potential damage this caused Israeli interests, not just the damage it did to Netanyahu’s political fortunes.

Israel’s enemies did not see this cold shoulder as a downgrading of Netanyahu’s stature in Washington, as his critics saw things, but rather as a downgrade of Israel’s stature in Washington, something inimical to Israel’s interests.

On the other side, Netanyahu loyalists and advocates downplayed the snub’s significance while begrudgingly acknowledging that the lack of an invitation was unusual and a sign of Biden’s displeasure.


They pointed out that the two leaders did talk occasionally on the phone, that high-level American and Israeli officials and ministers have been shuttling between the two capitals, and that the lines of communication between Washington and Jerusalem remained wide open. And, they said as if on cue, the strategic and security cooperation between the countries has never been stronger, a refrain often heard during the Obama years as well.

THE LONG-AWAITED and highly anticipated meeting finally took place on Wednesday. But neither the meeting’s optics nor the subsequent briefings dispelled narratives that had already taken hold. As if following a script, each side – the anti-Netanyahu camp and the pro-Netanyahu camp – interpreted what they saw and heard in line with their preconceived biases.

Those who hate Netanyahu stressed that Biden made the prime minister wait for 35 minutes, that the meeting took place in New York rather than in Washington, and that Biden publicly referenced the importance in a democracy of checks and balances, clearly signaling his displeasure with the Netanyahu government’s judicial reform.

Those who love Netanyahu claimed that the meeting was “warm and friendly,” that Biden barely discussed the judicial reform in his opening remarks, indicating that he didn’t prioritize this issue, and that he invited the prime minister to Washington for another meeting by the end of the year.

Everyone interpreted the optics of the meeting according to their predetermined preferences.

Saudi-Israel deal thrust in the spotlight

Yet one thing stood out and was undeniable: the meeting was dominated not by the judicial reform or even the Palestinian issue, but by the tantalizing prospect of a grand Saudi-Israeli-American agreement leading to normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Biden might not like this government’s judicial overhaul plan; he might think it harms Israeli democracy by altering the country’s delicate system of checks and balances; but this is not the main thing on his mind regarding Israel.

Right now, the main thing on his mind is brokering a deal with the Saudis that will include normalization with Israel and, as a condition, Israeli gestures or concessions to the Palestinians.

Wrapped up in our own news cycle, we tend to believe that the judicial overhaul and the anti-Netanyahu protests are the axes around which everything revolves. But it doesn’t. Significant and dramatic events are unfolding detached from the judicial reform issue.

One immediate outcome of the Netanyahu-Biden meeting was that the potential for regional transformation, in the form of Saudi-Israeli normalization, overshadowed judicial overhaul.

Netanyahu went to New York amid a chorus of people saying that this visit – and the relative dearth of world leaders lining up to meet him as compared to years past – reflect his diminishing status as a statesman. Yet he will return to Israel on Sunday with Israel and some parts of the world abuzz with the possibility of a groundbreaking Israel-Saudi-American deal.

Biden’s remarks at the start of his meeting with Netanyahu, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s interview with Fox News – where he mentioned that the chances of normalization with Israel are drawing nearer each day – shifted the conversation in Israel from all judicial reform all the time, to the possibility of peace with the Saudis, what that would cost, and what it would entail.

That Biden is more interested in a grand Saudi-Israel-American deal than he is concerned about the judicial reform in Israel became clear last week – even before the meeting – during a podcast with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

In the podcast, hosted by former Obama administration senior staffers Tommy Vietor and Ben Rhodes, two men whose distaste for Netanyahu is no secret, Blinken was asked why press forward with the Saudi deal now and potentially give a gift – “a big political win” – to Netanyahu and bin Salman, described as “two folks who fight against President Biden’s political wins on a regular basis.”

Blinken replied by taking a broader strategic view, rather than a narrow political one. He said this deal is not about “individual leaders or individual governments,” but “about the substance of the issue.”

In this particular case, there is the potential for region-transformative substance, which dictates rising above political considerations.

Blinken said there was “no question in his mind” that normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia would move the world into a more peaceful and prosperous direction “and be a profound change for the good – and a change that would... not be tied to any specific government but to the fundamental interests of the countries involved.”

Blinken added that while it was unclear whether such a deal could be pulled off, “there’s no doubt in my mind that if we could, it would be good for us, good for the countries in question, good for the region, and indeed good for the world beyond. If you have the leading... Islamic country in the world making peace with Israel, that’s going to have benefits that travel well beyond the region.”

In Blinken’s telling, these are benefits you don’t want to miss out on just because you don’t want to give one leader, prime minister, or government something that can be used for political gain.

BEFORE HE went to the US, some critics described Netanyahu as a lame-duck leader whose days as world statesman were well behind him. Yet, with Biden and bin Salman shedding light on the seriousness of the Saudi track, all of a sudden things look a bit different.

But why would Biden and bin Salman want to give Netanyahu new life? Obviously, it’s not because they hold pro-Netanyahu sentiments or want to help him or his government survive. Instead, it’s a recognition of the alignment of various geopolitical factors, including the US electoral calendar, the looming Iranian threat, and China’s expanding footprint in the region. They’ve realized that this unique moment and opportunity may not come around again for a long time.

If a comprehensive deal isn’t brokered now, under a Democratic president, for instance, with Netanyahu possibly able to help garner support of at least 17 Republicans to pass a treaty in the Senate requiring 67 votes, then who knows when another chance may emerge. The prospect of a Republican president persuading Democratic senators to support an agreement with Saudi Arabia, potentially involving a mutual defense pact and committing American soldiers to die for Saudi Arabia, alongside granting civilian nuclear capabilities to the kingdom, seems slim to almost nonexistent.

If Netanyahu’s trip has done nothing else, it has profoundly shifted the Israeli domestic conversation. It will, at least in the short term, no longer revolve primarily around judicial reform – focusing on aspects like the reasonableness standard or the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee. Instead, the national conversation will pivot toward what Israel will need to offer the Palestinians to make the deal happen, whether the benefits outweigh the costs, the far-reaching implications of granting civilian nuclear capabilities to Saudi rulers, and whether leaders like Benny Gantz from the National Unity Party and Yair Lapid from Yesh Atid will join a unity government to prevent coalition figures like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich from derailing the deal.

If nothing else, Netanyahu’s meeting with Biden illustrated that pivotal moments in history may, at times, prove bigger than individual leaders and governments. •