Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in the U.S. Monday for a meeting later in the week with President Joe Biden amid unprecedented demonstrations in Israel against a planned overhaul of Israel’s judicial system. Also on the agenda is a possible U.S.-brokered deal for normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Thousands of protesters flocked to the airport Sunday night as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left for the U.S. for nearly a week-long visit.
"I am here along with thousands of other people who are all very worried about the democracy of our country and the place, our government, the actions of our government which are risking everything that has been built here over the past 70 years," said Anat Refaeli, one of the protesters at the airport.
The demonstrators, who have been protesting in Israel for 37 consecutive weeks, vowed to follow Netanyahu everywhere he went in the U.S., starting with a meeting with business magnate Elon Musk.
Netanyahu further angered the protesters when he accused them of — in his words — “joining forces with the Palestine Liberation Organization, PLO, and Iran” in their activities, an accusation that the protesters are undermining Israel’s security and showing that Israel as weak and divided.
In a later statement, the Prime Minister’s office noted the anti-overhaul protesters would be demonstrating at the same time as pro-PLO activists who want President Biden to pressure Netanyahu to stop expanding settlements in the West Bank and take moves toward establishing a Palestinian state.
As he left for the U.S., Netanyahu said he would meet many world leaders — but first and foremost — President Biden on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
The prime minister said it was “heartwarming” to see how many requests for meetings with world leaders he had received, and he said he would try to meet as many of them as he could. The most important one is with President Biden it’s a meeting Netanyahu has been waiting for since his current government took office in late December.
Just a week later, his Justice Minister, Yariv Levin, introduced the plan for the judicial overhaul — a series of changes that would take power away from the Supreme Court and give more power to the Israeli parliament. One of the laws, called the Reasonableness clause, which takes away one of the Supreme Court’s tools to overrule government decisions, has already passed.
Supporters say it redresses a situation that had given Israel’s Supreme Court too much power. Opponents say it threatens Israeli democracy.
Aside from the judicial overhaul, Israeli analysts say the U.S. president will use his meeting with Netanyahu to gauge how far Israel is willing to go for a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia.
According to Israeli media reports citing unidentified American and Israeli sources, under an agreement, Saudi Arabia would get a defense deal with the U.S., including permission for a civilian nuclear program.
Israel would have normalized relations with the Arab country it sees as one of the most important in the Middle East and a gateway to peace agreements with other Arab states. The Palestinians would also get significant concessions from Israel.
It is this last part that President Biden wants to discuss with Netanyahu amid statements by Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers that Israel is not prepared to make deep concessions to the Palestinians.