podcast playback

JI podcast special: Netanyahu at the UNGA

JI’s Lahav Harkov breaks down the Israeli prime minister’s weeklong trip to the U.S.

Avi Ohayon (GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Joe Biden

In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, the first meeting between the two leaders since Netanyahu was reelected in December. Lahav Harkov, Jewish Insider’s senior political correspondent, was in New York covering the prime minister’s visit. She joined co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein for a special episode of JI’s podcast to discuss Netanyahu’s high-level meetings during his weeklong trip to the U.S., Saudi normalization and artificial intelligence.

Below are excerpts of the conversation. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On Biden’s meeting with Netanyahu: “The big deal is the fact that the meeting happened, right? It’s not like something particularly surprising happened, certainly not in the part that was public. Although, I will say that Biden was clearly trying very hard to keep everything very light, very positive, all about the U.S.- Israel relationship and about the sort of positive things that they have in development — whether it’s this huge infrastructure project from the G20 to connect Asia to Europe through the Middle East, or Saudi-Israel normalization — and then he sort of, on the way, on the side a little bit, mentioned Israeli democracy, which is, of course, the code for [the issue of] judicial reform. The fact that this meeting didn’t happen for so long was because of judicial reform and was because of figures in Netanyahu’s government [whom] Biden views as extremist, especially on the settlement issue. But it’s also beyond that on settler violence and other things like that. But on the other hand, they made a very big effort to focus on the positives, and from my understanding, in the meeting itself, those differences came up, but the actual focus of the meeting was the sort of broader Middle Eastern questions of normalization of the infrastructure project and things like that. And Iran, of course.”

On whether or not Biden and Netanyahu are on the same page regarding Saudi-Israel normalization and other issues facing the Jewish state: “My sense is that they want us to think that they’re on the same page. I have a little bit of a sense that they, you know, doth protest too much, and that maybe there are some serious differences going on… You know, it’s not having like nuclear energy the way the UAE does, it’s like they want a real nuclear program where they’re enriching their own uranium, and I think that that is a tough ask for Israel. But on the other hand, Netanyahu sees this deal as worth it. The Palestinian thing is very clear that there are differences. I think this is going to be a big challenge for Netanyahu in his current coalition, where, just a week or two ago, Israel was supposed to fulfill a promise that they had made in the previous government, that former Defense Minister Benny Gantz made, to give armored vehicles to the Palestinian police. They were about to do it and the news broke, these headlines came out about it, and then [Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich and [Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar] Ben-Gvir in Netanyahu’s coalition came out, and they were really mad about it, and they were like, ‘Why are we giving them weapons?’ Which, you know, it’s not a weapon, but OK, it’s military equipment of some sort. So if they can’t even handle the Palestinian police having armored vehicles, how are they going to handle a real concession? And I think that the Saudis, and to some extent, I think it’s more the Biden administration than the Saudis even, are not going to accept symbolic steps, they’re going to want something real. So I think Netanyahu’s going to have a real domestic challenge here. Even though he and the people surrounding him are like, ‘No, I’m never going to compromise Israel’s security, and my coalition partners know that, so it’ll be fine.’ But I think that he and Bezalel Smotrich, for example, have very different ideas of what it means to compromise Israel’s security. And so I think a lot of people are very concerned about the nuclear issue, I think it’s the Palestinian issue that will end up being the real obstacle here.”

On the meeting between Netanyahu and Ukrainian PresidentVolodymyr Zelensky: “My understanding is from Netanyahu’s side, that they saw it as a good meeting, but they also were honest with Zelensky that, from the get-go, you’re not going to get what you want from us, so let’s just talk about what you are going to get and try to work within the parameters of reality. Now, on Zelensky’s side, I can’t say that I have a source in there who I talked to, but if you look at what Zelensky said publicly, he talked about the sort of shared Iranian threat, that they both feel threatened by Iran. This is in his tweet about it, and he talked about Israeli civil humanitarian aid, without any complaint about Israel not providing military aid. It was positive, when he walked out of the meeting, a bunch of us press gathered outside sort of shouted to him, ‘How was the meeting?’ He said, ‘Good.’ You know, it’s one word, you could say it’s meaningless, but on the other hand, I think the fact that he’s been super critical of Israel many times in the past, the fact that this is mildly positive, is a good sign in that sense.”

On Netanyahu’s meeting with Elon Musk ahead of the UNGA: Before coming to New York, Netanyahu ​​was in California. He went to the Tesla plant and he had this chat with Elon Musk. I thought it was really fascinating. You know, Netanyahu has clearly done his homework and really understands what’s going on with AI, and what the potential risks and potential benefits are of it — and people who are interested in that topic, I encourage them to go on Netanyahu’s website and watch the video, you can watch it again, even if you missed it live. I found it very interesting. And Elon Musk is looking into possibly opening an R&D center, I think for Tesla — he does own a few companies. I’m actually not sure which — but I think Tesla, in Israel. That’s something he’s starting to explore. So that’ll be, I think, a success if it happens that Netanyahu can sort of bring home and say, ‘Look at this.’ But it also, I thought, was a really good attempt — I’m not sure it entirely succeeded — but Netanyahu was really trying to sort of seize the narrative of this trip and start it [on a] positive, and not all about the protests — of which there were protests in California, but I think in New York they were getting a lot more attention.”

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