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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

What really happened at the Biden-Netanyahu meeting

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in New York on Sept. 20, 2023. Many Israelis so detest Netanyahu that they wanted Biden to publicly rebuke him over the judicial coup that Bibi has mounted — and when that didn’t happen they thought the meeting was a huge missed opportunity, Thomas Friedman writes.

By Thomas Friedman

In recent weeks, there has been a lot of discussion about Joe Biden’s age. He’s old. But you know what comes with age besides a slower gait and forgetting words? Wisdom — in particular, how to handle a high-stakes diplomatic encounter without blowing things up (or blowing things up before you want them to blow up). And that’s what I think I saw at the face-to-face meeting between Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Wednesday in New York.

A lot of Israeli reporters and people I know were left depressed by the meeting, because Netanyahu came out and told everyone how warm and friendly it was. And Biden spoke about the unbreakable bonds between America and the Jewish state. Many Israelis so detest Netanyahu that they wanted Biden to publicly rebuke him over the judicial coup that Bibi has mounted — and when that didn’t happen, they thought the meeting was a huge missed opportunity.

“I get it, I get it,” I told them. “But didn’t you see it?” I asked.

“See what?” they responded.

While Biden was publicly putting his right arm around Netanyahu’s shoulder — precisely to defuse any attacks from Republicans for being too tough on Israel — I hear the president was, so to speak, using his left hand to privately slip a homework assignment into Bibi’s pocket. It was like a magician at work; you’d need to find the instant replay in double slow-motion to see it.

And do you know what that homework assignment said? My reporting suggests that it was broadly along these lines:

“Bibi, you want this deal that would normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. I want it too. But to get this deal, I’m going to have to do something really hard: forge a mutual defense pact with Saudi Arabia and maybe agree to some kind of civil nuclear program for the Kingdom under strict controls. The Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is going to have to do something really hard: normalize relations between the home of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, with the Jewish state. And now you’re going to have to do something hard too.

“You’re going to have to agree to terms for normalization with Saudi Arabia that will require you to verifiably curb Jewish settlements in the West Bank, improve living and travel conditions for Palestinians there, advance Palestinian administration over more of their populated areas in accordance with Oslo and generally agree to steps on the ground that preserve the option of a two-state solution, even though your coalition agreement advocates annexation.

“Now, Bibi, I, as your dear old, close and warm friend, would never tell you how to run your politics, let alone ask you to blow up your crazy coalition by agreeing to terms that the far-right Jewish supremacists in your Cabinet could never swallow. No, I would never do that. That would be intervening in your politics. That would be wrong. I’m just telling you, you’ve got homework to do, my dear old, close, warm buddy. And your homework is due in the next few weeks.”

It was a master class in how a U.S. president puts a fateful decision to an Israeli leader — one that poses to that Israeli leader the most excruciating challenge of his political career: Either blow up the extremist Cabinet you’ve built to keep yourself out of jail and replace it with a national unity coalition, or blow up the chance for peace with Saudi Arabia, which could pave the way for Israel’s acceptance across the whole Muslim world.

And Biden did it all by looking like what he actually is — one of Israel’s best friends ever — defusing any political blowback in America.

I’m not getting into the debate about whether Biden is too old to run for reelection. I’m just telling you that when it comes to diplomacy, age and experience are his greatest assets.

By the way, I’m kind of old myself — just turned 70. But my vision is still 20/20. And the good thing about being old — and still having good vision — is that I don’t need instant replay to see a diplomatic magician at work.

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