June 23, 2024

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, landed in the United States on Monday an embattled man, dogged by months of mass protests against his efforts to reduce the power of Israel’s Supreme Court.

He leaves on Saturday revitalized and potentially emboldened. Through six days of high-level meetings with world leaders and tech entrepreneurs, analysts said Mr. Netanyahu improved his strained relationship with President Biden and polished his reputation as a heavyweight player on the global state.

And he nudged criticism of his judicial overhaul into the background as a landmark diplomatic deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia appeared to gain momentum.

On Friday, he capped his week with an address to the U.N. General Assembly, saying that a deal with Saudi Arabia would “truly create a new Middle East.”

Mr. Netanyahu also deflected from his domestic challenges by positioning himself as a booster of the tech sector, holding surprising and, at times incongruous, discussions about artificial intelligence with tech leaders like Elon Musk and Eric Schmidt, the former Google chief executive.

In an exchange on Monday, Mr. Musk asked Mr. Netanyahu briefly about the judicial crisis during an hourlong public conversation.

Israel will be “a stronger democracy after the dust settles,” Mr. Netanyahu reassured him.

“Yeah, sounds good,” Mr. Musk interjected. “Well, great, I guess — back to the A.I.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s biggest fillip was his warm meeting on Wednesday with Mr. Biden.

Mr. Biden had avoided meeting Mr. Netanyahu since he re-entered office last December, at the helm of the most nationalist and religiously conservative coalition in Israeli history, amid growing frustration in Washington at Mr. Netanyahu’s judicial plan and his entrenchment of Israeli control over the occupied West Bank.

At a joint appearance, Mr. Biden still made gently critical remarks about the judicial overhaul, and briefly pushed Mr. Netanyahu to preserve the possibility of a Palestinian state.

But the president also bestowed Mr. Netanyahu with an invitation to the White House before the end of the year. That small but symbolic prize was awarded to Mr. Netanyahu without his changing course on either the judiciary or the Palestinians. But it makes it easier for Mr. Netanyahu to portray himself as a steady guarantor of Israel’s alliance with the United States, a partnership that domestic critics had accused him of endangering.

Most crucially, Mr. Biden announced progress in the U.S.-led efforts to broker a formal relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Hours later, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, said that the negotiations had brought a pact ever 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 dramatically upend the power dynamics of the Middle East, as well as enshrine Mr. Netanyahu’s legacy as a statesman.

The visit was rounded off by friendly meetings with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who has clashed with Mr. Netanyahu in the past, and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who had previously criticized Israel for doing too little to help his country fight the Russian invasion.

“This week has gone extremely well for him — as well as he could possibly have expected when he left Israel,” said Michael J. Koplow, an analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, a New York research group. “From a political standpoint, I think he’s in a lot better shape today than he was last week.”

The protests that have needled Mr. Netanyahu all year in Israel did still follow him to the United States.

Hundreds of demonstrators awaited him on arrival in California, and then later in New York. They stood outside his meeting with Mr. Biden, and gathered in the streets near the United Nations before his speech to the General Assembly on Friday.

Their actions represented a watershed moment: While American critics of Israel have long protested against Israeli treatment of Palestinians, rarely, if ever, have so many Israeli expatriates and American Jewish representatives gathered to oppose the domestic policies of an Israeli prime minister.

The protest leaders said their very presence ensured that Mr. Netanyahu did not entirely avoid a conversation about his judicial overhaul, which opponents argue will undermine Israeli democracy by removing a key check on government overreach.

“At least the screen was split,” said Offir Gutelzon, an Israeli tech worker living in California who helped lead the demonstrations. “There was always a picture of the protests alongside the picture of the meeting with Biden.”

For Mr. Biden, geopolitical considerations for the United States — the need to preserve strong ties with Israel and the chance of building new ones between Israel and Saudi Arabia — ultimately appeared to prove more important than any personal frustrations with Mr. Netanyahu’s judicial plan or approach to 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 focused on the Middle East. “That 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 appeared to have dulled, at least for now, some of the sharper criticism that had been expected from parts of the American Jewish community.

Last week, American Jewish leaders had expressed wariness about Mr. Netanyahu’s meeting with Mr. Musk, who has failed to curb a sharp rise in antisemitism on his social media platform, X, and whose critics feared would be bolstered by an audience with the Israeli prime minister.

But while Mr. Netanyahu avoided sharp criticism of Mr. Musk, he said enough that signaled concern about Mr. Musk’s actions to draw appreciation from watchdog groups like the Anti-Defamation League.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu had a very successful diplomatic week — and at least for some American Jews, that has certainly helped to blunt concerns about the political problems back in Israel,” said William C. Daroff, the chief executive of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

For Mr. Netanyahu, the bigger challenge may await back home.

The United States has often been a comfort zone for Mr. Netanyahu: It was where he cut his diplomatic teeth as an ambassador in the 1980s, building an international reputation as a smooth spokesman for Israeli interests, as well as a familiarity with and affection for American culture.

During a meeting this week in New York, he sent an aide to bring him donuts, expressly demanding Dunkin’ Donuts, a brand not easily available in Israel, drawing laughter from a group of visitors.

In Israel, he faces a tougher 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 civil nuclear program. It also wants Israel to grant at least some kind of concession to the Palestinians under Israeli occupation in the West Bank — giving them greater autonomy, perhaps, 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.

“Dangerous madness,” Tally Gotliv, a coalition lawmaker, said of the nuclear proposal on Thursday.

That kind of reaction means that Mr. Netanyahu’s successful week abroad will not necessarily create lasting dividends at home, said Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist and biographer of Mr. Netanyahu.

“Netanyahu can come back to Israel and say: mission accomplished,” Mr. Pfeffer said.

But parts of the Saudi deal were always likely to create a coalition crisis, Mr. Pfeffer said. “And that hasn’t changed.”

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