Avi Ohayon (GPO)/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat down together Wednesday for the first time since Netanyahu returned to office — a discussion in which Biden made clear the two leaders would be discussing the “hard issues” amid U.S.-Israeli tensions.

The topics of conversation included upholding democratic values, a veiled nod to the prime minister’s controversial plan to overhaul the judicial system.

“We’re going to discuss some of the hard issues, and that is upholding democratic values, that lie at the heart of our partnership, including checks and balances in our systems,” Biden said seated next to Netanyahu in New York City.

The president and White House officials have repeatedly expressed concern for Netanyahu’s proposal, but Wednesday morning, the prime minister attempted to reassure Biden of Israel’s “commitment to democracy.”

“I want to reassert here before you, Mr. President, that one thing is certain, and one thing will never change, and that is Israel’s commitment to democracy. We will continue to uphold the values that both our proud democracies cherish, and I think that working together will realize the promise, rollback back the dangers, and bring a better future for our region and the world.”

Netanyahu visited the White House in past administrations, but for his first one-on-one with Biden since reclaiming the premiership in Israel, the setting was in New York and not the Oval Office — viewed as a sign of Biden’s displeasure. However, at the top of the meeting, Biden told Netanyahu, “I hope we will see each other in Washington by the end of the year.”

Biden also nodded to domestic issues, bringing focus to the ongoing UAW strike. Biden was wearing a red tie today in solidarity with UAW workers across the country, according to the White House.

Israel remains the U.S.’ closest ally in the Middle East and Biden stressed the relationship between the countries is “ironclad” ahead of the meeting.

But Netanyahu’s hardline government’s policies have frustrated officials in Washington.

Netanyahu’s critics slam the initiative to overhaul the judicial system as a play to undermine Israel’s democracy by weakening its system of checks and balances and say it would also provide a legal shield for the prime minister, who is currently on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribe.

The prime minister denies the allegations against him and maintains that judicial reform in Israel is long overdue despite the massive protests sparked by proposed changes.

Additionally, as the U.S. has called for both Israelis and Palestinians to avoid escalation amid a period of heightened tension and violence, Netanyahu’s government has forged ahead with plans to expand settlements in the West Bank.

Despite these concerns, Israel remains critical for advancing the Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda.

U.S. officials have been working to normalize ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a move the Secretary of State Antony Blinken said would benefit American national security interests.

“This would be a transformative event. We’ve had decades of turmoil, decades of conflict in the Middle East. To bring these two countries together in particular would have a powerful effect in stabilizing the region,” Blinken said earlier on Tuesday. “Now, it’s hard to get there. There are things that Saudis are looking for, things the Israelis are looking for, things we’d be looking for that make getting to “yes” a challenge. But we see the reward, if we can get there, as well being worth the effort.”

Israel is also a pivotal partner to the U.S. in constraining Iran, a mutual adversary. Despite recent success in negotiations to free American detainees from Iran, U.S. officials say they currently see no opportunity to rekindle talks to constrain the country’s nuclear program — meaning the U.S. defense alliance with Israel is likely to only grow in strategical importance.

Biden did emphasize these areas of common ground during the Wednesday meeting, telling Netanyahu that he would work to ensure Iran “never acquires a nuclear weapon” and expressing hope for the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

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