Biden is ‘great friend of Israel,’ Herzog tells US Democrats amid bilateral tensions

President says alliance is ‘as strong as ever,’ as Netanyahu looks to reschedule advisers’ trip to Washington to discuss looming Rafah operation

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

President Isaac Herzog meets a group of visiting Democratic congresspeople, March 28, 2024 (Maayan Toaf/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog meets a group of visiting Democratic congresspeople, March 28, 2024 (Maayan Toaf/GPO)

Amid tensions between the White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government over the conduct of the war in Gaza, President Isaac Herzog on Thursday told a group of visiting Democratic congresspeople that US President Joe Biden is “a great friend of Israel.”

“When we hosted him less than two years ago here, I could see his love and affection and emotion towards the people of Israel and the State of Israel,” said Herzog to the group, which was organized by AIPAC. “The tears in his eyes when he saw so many great moments here. He is a true friend and I respect him a lot for that.”

Herzog and Biden bonded over their shared Irish roots during the latter’s 2022 visit to Israel. Biden also gave a warm speech during the ceremony in which Herzog bestowed on Biden Israel’s Presidential Medal of Distinction.

Biden also flew to Israel on a solidarity visit less than two weeks after the October 7 Hamas attacks. In an emotional speech in Tel Aviv, Biden pledged, “We’re going to stand with you. We’ll walk beside you in those dark days, and we’ll walk beside you in the good days to come.”

Over the ensuing months, however, that support has become increasingly tenuous. Biden has accused Israel of ‘indiscriminate” bombing in Gaza,  come out publicly against a major planned ground operation in Rafah, and this week declined to use a veto on a UN Security Council Resolution that Israel stridently opposed.

Netanyahu has taken a more direct approach in pushing back on Biden in recent weeks, including canceling a trip to Washington by two of his top aides.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Joe Biden in Tel Aviv, October 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

However, that trip appears to be back on track, a possible sign that both sides are trying to move beyond the latest tensions.

Herzog said on Thursday that the bond between the two countries is “essential to the well-being of our nations, and we should simply focus on upgrading, enhancing, and strengthening this bond.”

The president insisted that the alliance is “as strong as ever,” and that “the United States of America has no greater friend than Israel, and Israel has no greater friend than the United States of America.”

The president told the visiting lawmakers that the US and Israel “will work together to alleviate and upgrade the humanitarian aid to Gaza and we will work together endlessly to bring the hostages back home.”

The scope and pace of aid shipments into Gaza has been a major point of contention between Israel and allies. More than five months into Israel’s war with Hamas, a report by a global authority on food security has warned that famine is imminent in parts of Gaza, as more than three-quarters of the population have been forced from their homes and swaths of the territory are in ruins.

Galvanized by reports and images of starving children, the international community, led by the United States, has been pressuring Israel to facilitate the transfer of more aid into Gaza. Washington has airdropped food into the Mediterranean enclave and recently announced it would build a pier off the Gaza coast to help ferry in more aid.

Israeli officials reject these accusations and say they have increased aid access to Gaza. Israel isn’t responsible for delays in aid getting into Gaza, they say, and the delivery of aid once inside the territory is the responsibility of the UN and humanitarian agencies. Israel has also accused Hamas of stealing aid.

Palestinians check the rubble of buildings that were destroyed following overnight Israeli bombardment in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on March 27, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The war has devastated most areas in Gaza, creating a rapidly growing humanitarian crisis as aid deliveries struggle to supply the coastal enclave’s over two million residents.

Indirect talks for a temporary ceasefire that would include the release of hostages are ongoing in Doha, Qatar, with the participation of local, Egyptian and US mediators, but so far have not produced an agreement.

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