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Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Netanyahu on the sidelines of the 78th UN General Assembly in New York City on September 20, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

NEW YORK: US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged on Wednesday to work together towards a landmark agreement to forge diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Meeting for the first time since Netanyahu returned to power in December, both leaders signalled a desire to ease strains in their relationship, but Biden also made clear he was determined to discuss their differences.

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These included Biden’s opposition to Netanyahu’s far-right government’s controversial judicial overhaul plan as well as his concern about Israel’s hard line toward the Palestinians.

“I hope we can get some things settled today,” Biden said at the start of the talks sitting side-by-side with Netanyahu in a New York hotel ballroom.

Instead of a meeting at the White House the more prestigious venue preferred by Netanyahu - the two leaders ended up arranging their talks on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Biden opened the meeting by saying the US relationship with Israel was “ironclad.” But he also said they would discuss “upholding democratic values that lie at the heart of our partnership, including checks and balances.”

“We’re going to talk about some tough issues,” Biden said.

Common goals

Netanyahu stressed common goals in his opening remarks. “Under your leadership as president, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” he told Biden. Netanyahu said he would uphold democratic values, despite his proposed changes to Israel’s court system.

Biden administration officials have repeatedly raised concerns about Netanyahu’s contentious plan to overhaul Israel’s judicial system.

Netanyahu says the country’s unelected judges wield too much power over government decision-making. Critics say that by weakening the independent judiciary, Netanyahu is pushing Israel toward authoritarian rule.

His plan has divided the nation and led to months of mass protests against his government. Those demonstrations followed him to the United States, with large numbers of Israeli expatriates waving the country’s flag in protest Wednesday in New York. Hundreds of Israelis also protested outside the US Embassy in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

Early this year, Biden voiced his unhappiness over the judicial overhaul, saying Netanyahu “cannot continue down this road” and urging the Israeli leader to find a compromise. Netanyahu’s negotiations with the opposition have stalled and his coalition has moved ahead with its plan, pushing the first major piece of the legislation through parliament in July.

The Biden-Netanyahu meeting came at a time of cooling ties between Israel and the Democratic Party. A poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that while Americans generally view Israel as a partner or ally, many are questioning whether Netanyahu’s government shares American values . Republicans were significantly more likely than Democrats to call Israel an ally with shared values.