Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, arrived in the United States on Monday, a troubled man dogged by months of mass protests against his efforts to curb the power of Israel’s Supreme Court.
He leaves Saturday revitalized and potentially emboldened. During six days of high-level meetings with world leaders and technology entrepreneurs, analysts said Mr Netanyahu improved his strained relations with President Biden and honed his reputation as a power player on the world stage.
And he relegated criticism of his judicial overhaul to the background as a historic diplomatic deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia appeared to gain momentum.
On Friday, he concluded his week with a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, saying a deal with Saudi Arabia would “truly create a new Middle East.”
Mr. Netanyahu has also diverted attention from his domestic challenges by positioning himself as a promoter of the technology sector, hosting surprising and sometimes incongruous discussions on artificial intelligence with technology executives like Elon Musk and Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google.
In an exchange on Monday, Mr. Musk briefly asked Mr. Netanyahu about the legal crisis during an hour-long public conversation.
Israel will be “a stronger democracy once the dust settles,” Mr. Netanyahu reassured.
“Yeah, that looks good,” Mr. Musk interjected. “Well, great, I guess – back to AI”
Mr. Netanyahu’s biggest boost was his warm meeting on Wednesday with Mr. Biden.
Mr Biden had avoided meeting Mr Netanyahu since he returned to office last December, leading the most nationalist and religiously conservative coalition in Israel’s history, amid growing frustration in Washington in the face of Mr. Netanyahu’s judicial project and his strengthening of Israeli control. on the occupied West Bank.
In a joint appearance, Mr. Biden again offered gently critical remarks about the judicial overhaul and briefly pushed Mr. Netanyahu to preserve the possibility of a Palestinian state.
But the president also invited Mr. Netanyahu to the White House before the end of the year. This modest but symbolic prize was awarded to Mr. Netanyahu without his changing course either on the judicial system or on the Palestinians. But it makes it easier for Mr. Netanyahu to present himself as a consistent guarantor of the alliance between Israel and the United States, a partnership that domestic critics had accused him of endangering.
More importantly, Mr. Biden announced progress in U.S.-led efforts to negotiate a formal relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Hours later, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the negotiations had brought a pact closer.
Saudi Arabia has long ostracized Israel out of solidarity with the Palestinians. A diplomatic partnership between the most influential Arab country and the Jewish state would significantly upend power dynamics in the Middle East and also enshrine Mr. Netanyahu’s legacy as a statesman.
The visit was rounded off by friendly meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has clashed with Mr Netanyahu in the past, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who previously criticized Israel for not doing enough to help his country fight against Russia. invasion.
“This week has gone extremely well for him — as well as he could have expected when he left Israel,” said Michael J. Koplow, an analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, a new research group. yorkers. “From a political point of view, I think he’s in much better shape today than he was last week.”
The protests that have plagued Mr. Netanyahu all year in Israel nevertheless followed him to the United States.
Hundreds of demonstrators awaited his arrival in California, then in New York. They stood outside his meeting with Mr. Biden and gathered in the streets near the United Nations ahead of his speech to the General Assembly on Friday.
Their actions represented a watershed moment: While American critics of Israel have long protested Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, rarely, if ever, have so many Israeli expatriates and American Jewish representatives come together to oppose the domestic policy of an Israeli Prime Minister.
Protest leaders said their mere presence ensured that Mr. Netanyahu did not completely avoid a conversation about his judicial overhaul, which opponents say would undermine Israeli democracy by removing a key check on government excesses.
“At least the screen was split,” said Offir Gutelzon, an Israeli tech entrepreneur living in California who helped lead the protests. “There was always a photo of the protests next to the photo of the meeting with Biden. »
For Mr. Biden, geopolitical considerations for the United States – the need to preserve strong ties with Israel and the possibility of building new ones between Israel and Saudi Arabia – ultimately appear to prove more important than any frustration personal in the face of Mr. Netanyahu’s judicial project or approach towards the Palestinians.
“My takeaway is that Biden can’t live with Netanyahu, but he also can’t live without him,” said Aaron D. Miller, a former senior U.S. diplomat who has focused on the Middle East. “This means a functional relationship with Israel, not a soap opera. »
Mr. Miller added: “The big losers here, I think, are the Israeli democracy movement and of course the Palestinians. »
Mr. Netanyahu also appears to have toned down, at least for the moment, some of the harsher criticism expected from parts of the American Jewish community.
Last week, American Jewish leaders expressed distrust of Mr Netanyahu’s meeting with Mr Musk, which failed to curb a sharp rise in anti-Semitism on his social media platform, X, and which critics feared would be strengthened by an audience with the Israeli government. Prime Minister.
But even as Mr. Netanyahu avoided sharp criticism of Mr. Musk, he said enough to demonstrate concern about Mr. Musk’s actions to attract the approval of watchdog groups like the Anti-Defamation League.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu had a very successful diplomatic week — and at least for some American Jews, it certainly helped ease concerns about political problems in Israel,” said William C. Daroff, executive director of the Conference of presidents of Israel. Major American Jewish Organizations.
For Mr. Netanyahu, the biggest challenge could well await him at home.
The United States has often been a comfort zone for Mr. Netanyahu: it is where he cut his teeth as ambassador in the 1980s, building an international reputation as a smooth spokesperson for Israeli interests , as well as a familiarity and affection for Israel. American culture.
At a meeting this week in New York, he sent an aide to bring him donuts, specifically requesting Dunkin’ Donuts, a brand not easily available in Israel, drawing laughter from a group of visitors.
In Israel, he faces a harsher reception, not only from his opponents but also from his nominal allies.
Before making peace with Israel, Saudi Arabia wants the United States and Israel to agree to let it develop a civilian nuclear program. He also wants Israel to grant at least some sort of concession to Palestinians under Israeli occupation in the West Bank – perhaps giving them greater autonomy or ceding more land to Palestinian municipalities.
Both ideas drew criticism this week from members of Mr. Netanyahu’s ultranationalist coalition, who oppose greater Palestinian sovereignty and fear that the Saudi government could use a nuclear reactor to make a nuclear bomb.
“This is dangerous madness,” coalition lawmaker Tally Gotliv said Thursday of the nuclear proposal.
That kind of backlash means that Mr. Netanyahu’s successful week abroad won’t necessarily generate lasting dividends at home, said Anshel Pfeffer, Mr. Netanyahu’s columnist and biographer.
“Netanyahu can come back to Israel and say: mission accomplished,” Mr. Pfeffer said.
But parts of the Saudi deal still risked creating a coalition crisis, Mr. Pfeffer said. “And that hasn’t changed.”