By Betsy Klein and Donald Judd, CNN
(CNN) — US President Joe Biden extended a delayed invitation to Washington to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday as they leaned into their four-decade friendship and highlighted areas of common ground Wednesday, but also discussed the issues that have divided them at a long-anticipated meeting in New York, marking the first time the two leaders have met one-on-one since the prime minister returned to office last December.
Biden offered his counterpart a warm, cordial welcome as he said they would discuss “some of the hard issues,” including “checks and balances,” a reference to the Israeli leader’s judicial reform efforts which have been a source of significant tensions between the countries.
“Today, 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, and preserving the path to a negotiated two-state solution, and ensuring that Iran never, never acquires a nuclear weapon,” Biden said.
He continued, “Because even where we have some differences, my commitment to Israel, you know, is ironclad. I think without Israel, there’s not a Jew in the world that’s secure. I think Israel is essential.”
Though Biden stressed “hard issues” were discussed, the invitation to Washington, which took an unusually long period to come, seemed to underline the importance of the US’ relationship with its strongest ally in the Middle East despite the differences between the two leaders.
Biden noted that he worked with Netanyahu as a freshman senator, joking that he “gave up counting” how long they had been friends, with Netanyahu adding later that it had been “over 40 years.”
Both leaders pointed to efforts to expand economic relations as an opportunity to work closely together, and Biden heralded burgeoning ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The meeting, notably, took place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly rather than the White House, where Biden will host Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky later this week.
Netanyahu has not been invited to the White House since he re-took his nation’s top post, a move widely interpreted as linked to the Biden administration’s disapproval of the Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms.
But as the meeting was beginning, Biden told Netanyahu, “I hope we will see each other in Washington by the end of the year.” And a White House readout of the meeting confirmed that Biden invited Netanyahu to visit “before the end of the year” for “direct collaboration” on a broad range of issues.
Earlier this year, as mass protests and strikes brought Israel to a standstill, Biden offered an unusually stinging rebuke of the proposed reforms.
“Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned. I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road. I’ve sort of made that clear,” Biden told reporters in March.
“Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can work out some genuine compromise,” he said, adding “That remains to be seen.”
Israel’s Supreme Court held hearings on the law to curb its powers last week.
Netanyahu’s office trumpeted in July that he had been “invited” to meet Biden in the US, but the White House pointedly declined to call it an invitation and previously wouldn’t say where the leaders would meet.
Biden also met Brazil’s President
Biden also held a bilateral meeting with Brazilian President Lula da Silva, with whom he’ll also participate in a labor-focused event. And later Wednesday, he attends a pair of campaign fundraisers before returning to Washington, DC.
In the meeting with Lula, the two leaders heralded collaboration between the two countries on climate change and labor, and announced an international partnership for workers’ rights.
Noting that their countries are the “two largest democracies in the western hemisphere,” Biden told Lula that the US and Brazil “are standing up for human rights around the world and in the hemisphere. That includes workers’ rights.”
Lula noted the importance of skills-based jobs in building “hope in civil society” as he praised Biden’s support for organized labor.
“I followed your speech during the inauguration. And then afterwards, I followed another of your speech and I’ve never seen before a US president thought so much and so well of the workers as you,” Lula said via a translator.
Per a senior administration official, Wednesday’s partnership is the result of two leaders “uniquely aligned in their common vision for how the economy should work for workers,” and is part of an effort on Biden’s part “to strengthen and expand our bilateral partnership to promote workers’ rights, and in doing so, address some of the most salient challenges facing working people around the world.”
Wednesday’s meeting marked the second time the two presidents have met face-to-face – previously, Biden hosted Lula at the White House just one month after protesters aligned with far-right former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stormed government institutions in Brasilia following Bolsonaro’s election loss.
According to the official, both nations will use the partnership to address myriad challenges the two nations see facing the global economy, including worker exploitation, forced labor and child labor, increasing accountability in public and private investments, the transition to clean energy, challenges emerging from the digital economy, and discrimination against women, the LGBTQ+ community, and racial and ethnic groups.
But the announcement comes as the Biden administration faces challenges of its own with respect to labor – on Wednesday, the United Auto Workers’ strike against General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, which make cars under the Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram brands, enters its sixth day, with economists warning the US economy is already getting bruised. From Hollywood writers to nurses, factory workers, and Starbucks baristas, thousands of workers have gone on strike in recent months to demand higher pay and improved benefits and working conditions.
“Nothing about this initiative should be interpreted as discouraging or limiting the right to strike, which is a key part of freedom of association, collective bargaining and workers’ rights, generally speaking,” the official told reporters on a call previewing Wednesday’s announcement.
And while the partnership is beginning as a bilateral partnership, officials left the door open for additional countries signing on.
“We do hope to expand to other partners, but we want to make sure that we have a good sense of the lines of effort that we hope the initiative will include, and how we want to implement those efforts, those lines of effort, before we expand other partners,” the official said Tuesday.
Wednesday marks Biden’s second day at the UN General Assembly. On Tuesday, he made a forceful case for supporting Ukraine as Russia’s war is on the cusp of its second winter. That argument comes as Congress gears up for a spending battle with an uncertain path forward for future US aid to the war-torn country.
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