Herzog heads to Washington on high-stakes mission to keep US-Israel fissure in check

Israel’s domestic fight intensifies as the Biden White House continues to blast Netanyahu’s coalition, but there are signs that the president is visiting DC at just the right time

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

President Isaac Herzog at Ben-Gurion airport before taking off for Washington on July 18, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog at Ben-Gurion airport before taking off for Washington on July 18, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

After positioning himself for months as a peacemaker mediating Israel’s warring political camps, President Isaac Herzog took off for Washington early Tuesday to try to bridge another chasm that seems to be growing wider with each passing week.

When he lands in Washington at around 8:30 a.m., Herzog will be kicking off his second trip to US President Joe Biden’s White House as president, even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been impatiently awaiting his first turn to meet the president in Washington since he returned to office in December.

That invite finally came hours before Herzog’s flight, when Biden phoned Netanyahu Monday evening, though it was not clear that a White House sitdown was on offer. Even in the famously tense Barack Obama years, Netanyahu enjoyed repeated trips to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As reconfirmed in the White House readout of the call, which did not even mention the invite but highlighted several areas of concern, Biden and his inner circle are deeply disturbed by what they see unfolding under Netanyahu’s hardline coalition in Jerusalem. The question is how wide the Netanyahu-Biden gap really is, and whether Herzog can do anything in the coming days to will the veteran leaders closer together.

If he can’t, the domestic Israeli fight, and the tensions with the White House, risk making Israel seem vulnerable in the eyes of its enemies in Tehran and along its borders.

“It’s dangerous,” warned Michael Oren, ambassador to the US in the Netanyahu-Obama years, “because it is sending a message of division to our enemies.”

Some observers believe that the bilateral relationship has drifted into unprecedentedly choppy waters.

“This is one of the deepest, maybe the deepest crisis, in the history of the US-Israeli relationship,” argued Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser and now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

“Biden is a true friend of Israel,” he continued. “I think he is simply appalled by what he sees.”

It is not merely the specific policies the White House is publicly lambasting, though Washington has been vocally critical of moves to expand settlements, Israeli military actions that put civilians in the crossfire, and the lack of consensus on the government’s plan to remake the judiciary.

Rather, argued Freilich, the president is casting doubt on Israel’s basic character as a democracy.

Biden is a true friend of Israel. I think he is simply appalled by what he sees.

“That is the fundamental basis for the bilateral relationship, the normative dimension,” he explained. “Israel’s strategic importance would be a fraction of what it was if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s a liberal democracy.”

Others are somewhat less alarmed by tensions, arguing that the White House is only rejecting the current government.

“Obviously the Prime Minister has been snubbed, but the administration is still signaling its deep support for Israel for the long term by inviting the president [now] instead of the prime minister,” opined Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.

Then-US vice president Joe Biden shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (Ariel Schalit/AP/File)

What’s more, he argued, the US-Israel relationship is designed to weather exactly these types of storms.

“We saw this during the 2013 to 2015 period when the JCPOA nuclear deal was being negotiated and implemented — that cooperation and engagement between the two sides was wide and deep. Even though there were tensions at the executive level, across the bureaucracies, things continued to develop and actually even mature,” he said.

Biden and Netanyahu, both deeply involved in the relationship for decades, have ridden out numerous squalls, and know how to keep damage in check, he asserted.

Bird’s-eye view of Ramat Shlomo, March 1, 2013 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

But Biden’s long experience might actually push him toward a harder line today.

During an official visit by the then-vice president in 2010 to smooth over tensions, the Interior Ministry announced that 1,600 housing units would be built in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem. The timing of the declaration embarrassed Biden, who said the move “undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.”

US Vice President Joe Biden during a press conference at the residence of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not seen, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, March 9, 2010.(Ariel Schalit/AP)

“Biden bears the scars of the Ramat Shlomo incident,” said Oren. “It was a slap in the face of the vice president, a slap in the face of the president.”

At the time, many saw the decision to announce the building — a technical step in a drawn-out process that would normally have attracted little notice — as then-Shas party leader Eli Yishai trying to pressure Netanyahu on domestic coalition demands. Now, according to Oren, his partners could do a lot worse.

“Bibi was in much greater control of his government back then,” he said. “Imagine him now sitting in the Oval Office and [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben Gvir and his constituents burn a Palestinian village.”

It’s Smotrich and Ben Gvir, stupid

Before taking off, Herzog called on MKs and activists to compromise on the coalition’s sweeping judicial reform. “It is possible to arrive at reasonable formulas – both on the subject of reasonableness and on other matters,” he said from the tarmac. “It simply requires effort, it requires giving up a little, it requires entering the room. It doesn’t have to be in the president’s house, it can also be behind the scenes in the Knesset. Make an effort, the price is too great.”

Though the judicial overhaul has been one of the main areas of criticism from Washington, many experts don’t think it is the main one.

Biden has met recently with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and India’s Narendra Modi, both of whom have actually enacted policies that take their countries in a decidedly illiberal direction. But the president chose to forgo any direct criticism, instead focusing on vital interests the countries share.

Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks with Head of the National Union party MK Betzalel Smotrich seen during an elections campaign event of Otzma Yehudit party in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

The most he mustered in his meeting with Modi, according to the administration, was his hope for a “prosperous future grounded in respect for human rights, and shared principles of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law.”

“The judicial reform is just an easy hammer [to] hit them with,” said Mark Regev, a former senior adviser to Netanyahu who now heads the Reichman University Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy. “My sense is that they’re more concerned about [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich and Ben Gvir.”

An Israeli official indicated as much to The Times of Israel on Sunday. “They cannot abide the presence of  Smotrich and Ben Gvir in this government, and certainly not statements like ‘the [Palestinian] village of Huwara needs to be wiped out,'” the official said, invoking roundly condemned comments made by Smotrich in March, for which he later apologized.

“It’s a government which can’t keep its mouth shut about anything, including various junior ministers saying really reprehensible things about the United States, the president of the United States on a regular basis,” said Freilich. “This would not be tolerated from any other country. ”

Oren noted that Biden’s tough line on Israel may be largely dictated by a need to shore up support with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. As the 2024 election cycle heats up, polls continue to emerge showing Biden in a precarious situation against Donald Trump, and he faces formidable challenges from candidates on the fringes of his own party.

New York US House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez smiles at a progressive fundraiser on August 2, 2018, in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)

“He’s not in a good position,” said Oren. “I would imagine that one of his biggest fears is that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party would put up its own campaign.”

Biden promised to reopen the US consulate to the Palestinians, to curb settlement growth, and to reanimate a peace process, but has not delivered on any of those promises.

“That means there’s really no conceivable path back to normal White House-prime minister ties, then, as long as both of these guys are in power,” Oren lamented.

Even with all those headwinds, there might be indications the sides are headed toward calmer seas.

Last week, Biden gave a widely covered interview to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, in which he said that Netanyahu’s coalition government has some “of the most extreme members” he’s seen in Israel, and that cabinet ministers who back settling “anywhere they want” in the West Bank are “part of the problem” in the conflict.

But there were subtle hints that Biden was interested in setting a new course in his relationship with Netanyahu.

US President Joe Biden speaks to the press at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, on March 28, 2023. (Jim WATSON / AFP)

In March, when Biden was asked if Netanyahu was going to be invited, he said the premier would not be coming in the “near term” amid frustration over the judicial reform plan. This time, however, he dodged the question, noting instead that Herzog would be coming to Washington.

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.

“That, in Israel’s perspective, could be seen as an improvement,” said Regev.

Then came Monday night’s telephone invite, albeit vague.

A precarious address

Herzog, then, will have to try to nudge Biden and Netanyahu closer together, without seeming to publicly criticize the president.

In private, it shouldn’t be too difficult for Herzog to lay out the parameters of a judicial compromise, and to focus on areas of agreement between the countries, like climate technology and innovation.

It will be in the public address before Congress where Herzog will have to be careful of the shoals.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, right, and his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan shake hands prior to their meeting in Tehran, Iran, on June 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Some points of disagreement are unavoidable for an Israeli president. He will have to address the divide over America’s efforts to engage with Iran, and will have to insist on Israel’s freedom of action.

“These are key principles that I think the president will have little choice but to articulate,” said Schanzer.

But on the Iran issue at least, there are already years of dialogue between Washington and Jerusalem, and an agreement to disagree.

“The judicial overhaul issue is one which is new,” said Schanzer. “There is very little in the way of common ground. There has not really been a decision to agree to disagree.”

What’s more, with the camps in Israel so far apart, it will be hard to find language that both sides are happy with back home.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, July 15, 2023. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

But criticizing sitting ministers in a foreign capital would also be unseemly for an Israeli president.

“As far as judicial overhaul and the current makeup of the Netanyahu cabinet, these are things that he’s going to have to be very careful in terms of whether he addresses or doesn’t address,” said Schanzer.

Regev wants to see Herzog push back on some of Biden’s critiques.

“I’d like to see a message where part of the shared values is there’s a respect for the democratic process in Israel,” he said. “It’s possible that some people in the administration would have preferred a different outcome. But part of being a democracy is you respect the democratic elections in another country.”

Herzog could also propose a deal in his closed meetings. In exchange for US concessions on Iran, or gestures that would bring about some kind of Saudi recognition of Israel, Netanyahu would put the judicial reform on ice and assert more control over his right flank.

MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, left, and Justice Minister Yariv Levin attend a committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Of course, those pushing the judicial reform – especially Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chair Simcha Rothman – are in no mood to back down. Like Yishai in 2010, proponents of the overhaul have made clear that they will not let Netanyahu ignore domestic political considerations in favor of international diplomacy.

“We don’t choose the American president. They don’t choose the Israeli prime minister,” Regev said. “But because we’re allies, friends, partners, we have to work together.”

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