President Biden is scheduled to host Israeli President Isaac Herzog at the White House on Tuesday, a high-profile meeting with the country’s ceremonial head that comes amid tensions between Biden and the leader of Israel’s ruling coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It is the second visit to the White House in the past nine months for Herzog, whose position is mostly symbolic but whose approach and tone are often more moderate than Netanyahu and the hard-line elements of the Israeli parliament. Netanyahu, although he is the elected leader of the country’s government, has not met with Biden since the Israeli leader took office again in December.
In an attempt to ease tensions and possibly avoid the sense that he is snubbing Netanyahu, Biden on Monday spoke with the prime minister — with whom he has on occasion clashed publicly — and the two leaders agreed to meet later this year in the United States.
A major point of contention is Netanyahu’s attempt to overhaul Israel’s independent judiciary and weaken the power of the country’s Supreme Court, which has triggered widespread protests in Israel and prompted a rare public rebuke from Biden as he weighed in on a domestic issue in a foreign country.
In a March phone call, Biden told Netanyahu that shared democratic values, including “genuine checks and balances,” had to remain a key part of the U.S.-Israel relationship, a comment widely seeing as referring to the judicial shake-up.
Biden has been a staunch supporter of Israel during his more than 50 years in politics, and the meeting with Herzog gives him a way to signal the continuation of that support without embracing Netanyahu. Herzog has attempted to mediate a consensus within Israel on the judicial overhaul, which is expected to be a topic of discussion during his meeting with Biden.
“We believe strongly in the democratic institutions and the ideals of democracy that the United States and Israel represent,” John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Monday during a White House briefing. “And we want to see Israel be as vibrant and as viable a democracy as possible. And that means that you build programs and reforms and changes in a way that is based on compromise.”
The two leaders are also planning to discuss Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Tehran’s other destabilizing activities, such as attacks on maritime shipping and crackdowns on women not wearing hijabs. Climate change, security issues and Israel’s acceptance by its Arab neighbors are on the agenda as well.
Ahead of the trip, Herzog said he would focus on Iran and “expanding the circle of regional peace.” He did not mention the judicial overhaul or other domestic conflicts, including the debate over Netanyahu’s hard-line policies toward the Palestinians.
“In my speeches and meetings, I will relate to my hosts as close partners in all the issues at hand, including the internal challenges and opportunities facing Israeli society,” he said in a statement.
Herzog is also scheduled to give an address to a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday at the invitation of congressional leaders from both parties, an event that is in part a recognition of the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding,
It will be only the second address given by an Israeli president to a joint meeting. The first was by Herzog’s father — the sixth Israeli president, Chaim Herzog — more than 35 years ago.
“The world is better off when America and Israel work together,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a statement last month. “Today, we continue to strengthen the unbreakable bond between our two democracies.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said support for Israel “transcends party politics.”
“I am pleased Congress will have the opportunity to hear from President Herzog, who has always been a great leader and is particularly influential at this time, to commemorate 75 years of the success of the State of Israel and the strong, enduring U.S.-Israel alliance,” Schumer said in a statement.
Yet the widespread American support for Israel is showing fissures to a degree unusual since the country was founded in 1948, as liberal Democrats especially question its policies toward the Palestinians. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, caused an uproar Saturday by saying at a conference in Chicago that Israel is a “racist state.”
“As somebody who’s been in the streets and participated in a lot of demonstrations, I want you to know that we have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state, that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and autonomy, that the dream of a two-state solution is slipping away from us, that it does not even feel possible,” she said.
Many Democrats pushed back sharply against Jayapal’s comment, and the congresswoman sought to clarify her remarks on Sunday, saying in a lengthy statement that she does not “believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist” and offering an apology to “those who I have hurt with my words.”
“We saw that she apologized, and we’re glad she did,” Kirby said Monday. “We think an apology was the right thing to do for those comments. … You’ll see this tomorrow when the president gets a chance to meet with President Herzog: Our commitment to Israel is ironclad, and we’re going to make that clear and consistent every chance we get.”
Israel also prompted criticism in some quarters with its recent military operation in Jenin, its largest incursion into the West Bank in two decades and an action that left 12 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier dead. Israeli officials said the operation was necessary to go after the weapons stockpiles of militant groups who were determined to use them against Israel.
Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), then the House speaker, sent an invitation in October for Herzog to address a joint meeting of Congress when he was in Washington for an earlier visit, but it did not take place. U.S. officials said Monday’s call with Netanyahu also had been in the works for weeks.
In that call, Biden expressed his support for Israel but also raised concerns about the continued growth of its settlements in the occupied territories, Kirby said, as well as about Netanyahu’s proposed judicial changes. Right-wing groups in Israel, including those that are part of Netanyahu’s coalition, have long viewed Israel’s Supreme Court as too liberal and potentially biased against Netanyahu, who faces corruption charges.
Kirby said Biden’s willingness to meet with Netanyahu did not signal any softening in the president’s opposition to some of Israel’s current policies. “That doesn’t mean that … we have less concerns over these judicial reforms or less concerns over some of the extremist activities and behavior by some members of the Netanyahu cabinet,” Kirby said. “Those concerns are still valid.”
Biden in a CNN interview recently said that Netanyahu is overseeing “one of the most extremist members of cabinets that I’ve seen” and remarked that the Israeli prime minister is attempting to determine “how he could work through his existing problems in terms of his coalition.”
Using Netanyahu’s nickname, Biden added, “Hopefully Bibi will continue to move toward moderation.”