(JTA) — After months of icy relations, President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met face to face for the first time since Netanyahu’s return to office late last year — with both appearing eager to convey that the U.S.-Israel alliance remains on solid footing despite their disagreements.
The two leaders have been at odds for the better part of a year over a range of issues, from Netanyahu’s effort to weaken the Israeli court system to his far-right governing partners to the Biden administration’s attempts to reenter an agreement with Iran. Biden has demurred on inviting Netanyahu to the White House, and the nine months during which the men did not meet is the longest any Israeli prime minister has waited for a presidential meeting in 50 years. Earlier this summer, Biden invited Israeli President Isaac Herzog to Washington, D.C., a gesture seen as a snub of Netanyahu.
The meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City took place as hundreds of people, led by Israeli expatriates, gathered to protest Netanyahu and his judicial overhaul. The protesters, who are linked to a larger protest movement in Israel, say the legislation will gut the Israeli Supreme Court and erode Israel’s democracy — a position Biden has echoed repeatedly, including at Wednesday’s meeting.
But in their press conference, the president and prime minister both broadcast an image of conviviality and stressed points of agreement despite the notes of tension. The two leaders joked with each other, each mentioning their decades-long relationship, which dates back to Biden’s time as a Democratic senator and Netanyahu’s term as Israel’s U.N. ambassador in the 1980s.
“Joe, we’ve been friends for over 40 years, and our friendship goes a long way,” Netanyahu said. “And can take us a long way.”
Biden and Netanyahu met privately following the press conference, and Netanyahu will address the U.N. General Assembly on Friday.
On one key issue, Biden and Netanyahu appear to be relatively aligned: the prospect for a U.S.-brokered peace treaty between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The prospects of a Saudi-Israel deal have brightened in recent weeks as Biden brokered an agreement earlier this month, at the G-20 summit of industrial nations in India, to forge a trade corridor between India and Europe that would include hubs in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
At the press conference, Netanyahu said a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia was possible while Biden is president. Biden’s first term will conclude in January 2025; he is running for reelection.
“I think that under your leadership was president, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Netanyahu said. “I think such a piece 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.”
Biden agreed. “If 10 years ago we were talking about normalization with Saudi Arabia, we’d be speaking to each other like, ‘Who’s been drinking what?” he said.
Biden also mentioned the initiative in his speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday, saying the trade corridor would “spur opportunities and investment across two continents.”
“This is part of our effort to build a more sustainable, integrated Middle East,” Biden said in his speech. “It demonstrates how Israel’s greater normalization and economic connection with its neighbors is delivering positive and practical impacts even as we continue to work tirelessly to support a just and lasting peace between he Israelis and Palestinians — two states for two peoples.”
Netanyahu has supported such a trade route for decades, and appeared elated that Biden was placing the proposed corridor front-and-center in U.S. diplomacy. “Such a corridor will make Israel an important hub and a highway of unprecedented prosperity,” he told Biden.
Saudi Arabia’s leaders have been less bullish than Israel or the United States on the prospect of a deal, but they have signaled a degree of enthusiasm. One sign of that positivity was a conference they helped convene on the sidelines of the United Nations to revive sustained Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which haven’t occurred for nearly a decade, and which Saudi leaders say would be critical to advancing peace between their country and Israel.
Despite their mutual optimism about an accord with Saudi Arabia, the press conference was replete with evidence of the two leaders’ disagreements over Israel’s democratic trajectory.
“We’re going to discuss some of the hard issues,” Biden said. “That is, the wholly democratic values that lie at the heart of our relationship, including checks and balances in our systems.”
Netanyahu said he was intent on preserving Israel’s democracy. “I want to reassure here before you, Mr. President, that one thing is certain, and one thing will never change. And that is Israel’s commitment to democracy,” he said. “We will continue to uphold the values that both our proud democracies cherish.”
Both leaders also mentioned Iran before they closed their meeting to media but did not seem to be particularly at odds when it came to that issue. In recent days, Biden has drawn criticism from American foreign policy hawks for a prisoner exchange he brokered with Iran that also released money for humanitarian assistance to Iran.
Biden said their discussion would include “ensuring that Iran never never acquires a nuclear weapon. Because even though we have some differences, my commitment to Israel, you know, is ironclad.”
“I appreciate Mr. President, your continuous commitment to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability,” Netanyahu said. “That’s critical.”
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Israel, Hezbollah Trade Fire Across Israel-Lebanon Border for Third Day
Israeli forces and Hezbollah terrorists traded fire across the Israel-Lebanon border on Sunday for the third consecutive day and Israel said several of its soldiers were hurt, following the collapse of a truce between it and Hamas terrorists in Gaza.
The Israeli military said its soldiers were “lightly injured” when an anti-tank missile fired from Lebanon hit a vehicle in the Beit Hillel area of northern Israel.
Israeli forces fired artillery in return, the military’s statement read.
Iran-backed Hezbollah said it had targeted a number of Israeli positions with what it called “appropriate weapons”.
Following the eruption of the Hamas-Israel war on Oct. 7, Hezbollah mounted near-daily rocket attacks on Israeli positions at the frontier while Israel launched air and artillery strikes in south Lebanon. But the border was largely calm during a week-long truce in Gaza that collapsed on Friday.
It has been the worst fighting since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, a Hamas ally.
Just over 100 people in Lebanon have been reported killed during the hostilities, 83 of them Hezbollah fighters. Tens of thousands of people have fled both sides of the border.
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Israeli Medical Experts Declare Some Gaza Hostages Dead in Absentia
Even as it tries to recover hostages through indirect talks with Hamas and army operations in the Gaza Strip, Israel has been declaring some of the missing as dead in captivity, a measure designed to grant anxious relatives a measure of closure.
A three-person medical committee has been poring over videos from the Oct. 7 rampage by Hamas-led Palestinian gunmen in southern Israel for signs of lethal injuries among those abducted, and cross-referencing with the testimony of hostages freed during a week-long Gaza truce that ended on Friday.
That can suffice to determine that a hostage has died, even if no doctor has formally pronounced this over his or her body, said Hagar Mizrahi, a Health Ministry official who heads the panel created in response to a crisis now in its third month.
“Designation of death is never an easy matter, and certainly not in the situation embroiling us,” she told Israel’s Kan radio. Her committee, she said, addresses “the desire of the families of loved ones abducted to Gaza to know as much as possible”.
Of some 240 people kidnapped, 108 were freed by Hamas in return for the release by Israel of scores of Palestinian detainees as well as boosted humanitarian aid shipments to Gaza.
Since the truce expired, Israeli authorities have declared six civilians and an army colonel dead in captivity.
This has not been confirmed by Hamas. It has previously said dozens of hostages were killed in Israeli airstrikes, has threatened to execute hostages itself and suggested that some hostages were in the hands of other armed Palestinian factions.
Hostages have been kept incommunicado despite Israel’s calls on the Red Cross to arrange visits and verify their well-being.
Mizrahi said she and her fellow panelists – a forensic pathologist and a physical trauma clinician – have been watching clips shot by the Hamas attackers themselves, cellphone video by Palestinian spectators and CCTV footage of the hostage-taking “again and again, frame by frame”.
That has allowed them to map out life-threatening wounds and spot any cessation of breathing or other essential reflexes.
Additional considerations have been hostages’ rough handling by captors, the reduced chances of them getting adequate medical care in Gaza and accounts of deaths by former fellow hostages.
The panel has been consulting with a religious expert, she said, given Jewish laws that prevent a widow from remarrying unless her bereavement is formally recognized by authorities.
“We assemble the overall picture,” Mizrahi said, adding that every determination of death has to be unanimously agreed upon.
The risk of getting it wrong was laid bare in the case of Emily Hand, who went missing on Oct. 7 and whose father Tom was initially informed “unofficially” that she had been killed. The girl had in fact been taken hostage and was freed in the truce.
Being denied a burial may pose a psychological barrier for grieving kin, however.
Last week, the Israeli military – which has rabbinical and intelligence units scouring Gaza battlefields for information about the fate of lost soldiers, as well as remains of hostages — declared dead Shaked Gal, a conscript missing since Oct 7.
His mother Sigalit said in a Facebook post addressed to the 19-year-old that she would not observe the traditional Jewish mourning period for him “until your body is returned”.
Mizrahi said her panel had yet to encounter a family that refused to accept its determination, but was prepared for that:
“We are here to provide the professional side. We do not, God forbid, debate or confront the families regarding their decision, and we accept their choices with understanding.”
The military has recovered the bodies of one captive soldier and two civilian hostages, and freed one soldier in a rescue operation.
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Israel Says It Uncovered 800 Shafts to Hamas Tunnels Below Gaza
Israeli forces have found 800 shafts leading to Hamas’ vast subterranean network of tunnels and bunkers since a Gaza ground operation began on Oct 27, and have destroyed more than half of them, the military said on Sunday.
The Palestinian Islamist group said before the now eight-week-old war in the Gaza Strip that it had hundreds of kilometers of tunnels – a network comparable in size to the New York subway system – to protect and serve as operational bases.
That has made them prime targets for Israeli air strikes with penetrating munitions and army engineers using mapping robots and exploding gel that can be poured into the passages.
“The tunnel shafts were located in civilian areas, many of which were near or inside civilian buildings and structures, such as schools, kindergartens, mosques and playgrounds,” the military said in a statement on Sunday.
The statement, summarizing anti-tunnel operations so far, followed near-daily accounts to the media by troops who said they uncovered access shafts in civilian sites.
The war’s civilian toll has increasingly worried world powers. Washington urged Israel to use caution on Saturday.
Of some 800 shafts discovered, the military said, 500 had been destroyed using a variety of operational methods, including by “detonation and by sealing off.” It added that “many miles” of main tunnel routes had also been destroyed.
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