Herzog heads to DC, hoping to bridge the Biden-Netanyahu divide

President will be feted in US capital, a sharp contrast with continued White House criticism of government over settlements, judicial overhaul

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US President Joe Biden and President Isaac Herzog, during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Oct. 26, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
US President Joe Biden and President Isaac Herzog, during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Oct. 26, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

President Isaac Herzog is set to take off early Tuesday for Washington, where he will meet US President Joe Biden and address a joint session of Congress.

His visit highlights the Biden administration’s glaring lack of an invitation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, amid tensions between the two governments over a range of domestic and international issues.

Biden’s embrace of Herzog is likely a way for the US president, who proudly calls himself a Zionist, to show that he supports Israel but has serious reservations about the Netanyahu-led hardline coalition.

It will be Herzog’s second White House visit in less than nine months, while Netanyahu has yet to receive an invitation since returning to office in late December.

Herzog will seek to make progress on arranging a meeting between Netanyahu and Biden, according to Channel 13 news.

But opponents of the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul plan will try to underscore to Herzog’s host how controversial the issue remains in Israel.

Protesters reportedly plan to bus down from New York to demonstrate in front of the US Capitol building on Wednesday, as Herzog delivers his address.

President Isaac Herzog (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) attend a Jerusalem Day holiday ceremony at the capital’s Ammunition Hill, May 18, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

A Channel 13 report cited diplomatic sources saying Netanyahu is displeased by Herzog’s trip.

Netanyahu told the Ambassador Michael Herzog — the president’s brother, who is Israel’s envoy to Washington — that he thought the visit would give the White House legitimacy to avoid inviting the premier, the report said.

In late March, Biden said Netanyahu would not be visiting the White House in the “near term” amid Washington’s frustration with the judicial overhaul.

Days earlier, Israel’s ambassador to Washington was summoned to the State Department for a dressing down over violations of commitments regarding policy toward the Palestinians.

Recently, administration officials have focused their criticisms more on Palestinian issues.

Biden last week said in a CNN interview that Netanyahu’s coalition has some “of the most extreme members” he has seen in Israel, lamenting that they back unrestricted settlement growth and do not recognize any Palestinian right to the territory.

File: Itamar Ben Gvir (right), head of the Otzma Yehudit party, and chairman of the Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich at an election campaign event in Sderot, October 26, 2022. (Flash90)

Notably, however, Biden did not directly dampen the prospects of a Netanyahu visit in that interview, as he did in March, instead changing the topic to Herzog’s trip. And while he criticized Netanyahu’s coalition, Biden seemed to sympathize with the prime minister’s political predicament.

Netanyahu, said Biden, “is trying to work through how he could work through his existing problems in terms of his coalition.”

“Hopefully Bibi will continue to move toward moderation,” he added.

Netanyahu’s office  sought to downplay the divide, saying last week that “it is no secret that we have disagreements with the US government around establishing a Palestinian state, returning to the dangerous nuclear agreement with Iran, and PM Netanyahu’s stance against the ‘no surprises’ policy around Israeli actions against Iran. However, the ties between Israel and the US have grown close over the course of decades, and security cooperation has reached an all-time high under Prime Minister Netanyahu’s leadership.”

Anti-overhaul protesters outside the Israeli consulate in New York City, July 11, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

But the White House doesn’t seem eager to patch things up.

After New York Times columnist Tom Friedman — likely reflecting Biden’s policy — penned an op-ed last week saying that the administration has begun “reassessing” its ties to the Netanyahu government, the White House issued a rather tepid response saying that it was not engaged in a “formal” reset, leaving open the possibility that it has started reviewing the relationship in an unofficial manner.

Herzog and Netanyahu met last Thursday for one of their regular briefings, to update the president on Israel’s Iran policy before Herzog meets with Biden. Herzog also used the opportunity to urge Netanyahu to return to negotiations brokered by the President’s Office, aimed at securing a compromise with the opposition regarding judicial reform.

The White House said in a statement that Herzog’s visit “will highlight our enduring partnership and friendship” and that Biden will use the opportunity when they meet on Tuesday to “reaffirm the ironclad commitment of the United States to Israel’s security.”

“The two leaders will discuss opportunities to deepen Israel’s regional integration and to create a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East,” the White House added.

Biden directed his aides earlier this year to try and broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but US officials have said recently that such a deal will be all but impossible to reach due to Israel’s ongoing policies toward the Palestinians.

Border Police officers stop Israeli settlers from entering the Palestinian West Bank town of Turmus Ayya, June 21, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

On Wednesday, Herzog will give an address to a joint session of Congress in honor of Israel’s 75th anniversary. Herzog will also meet with US Vice President Kamala Harris in addition to a range of interagency officials during his two days in Washington. He will then travel on Thursday to New York, where he will meet with Jewish community leaders and stay for Shabbat.

Along with Biden and Harris, Herzog will meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

In New York, Herzog will meet UN chief Antonio Guterres, NY Governor Kathy Hochul, NYC Mayor Eric Adams, and Jewish community leaders, including a reception thrown by the UJA-Federation of New York.

Leah Goldin, mother of late Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin, attends a press conference ahead of the cabinet meeting, August 5, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Herzog said Sunday that he would bring Leah Goldin — whose son Hadar was killed in the Gaza war in 2014 and whose body is being held by Hamas — with him during this week’s visit to Washington and New York City.

Goldin will be present during Herzog’s meetings in Congress and with the UN secretary-general, and will bring up the Israelis being held in Gaza, according to a statement from the president’s office.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report. 

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