ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 139

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Herzog tells Biden Israel’s democracy ‘resilient,’ as overhaul protests rage at home

US president avoids publicly mentioning judicial reform but privately says compromise vital, and that internal crisis complicates efforts to advance regional peace

President Joe Biden and Israel's President Isaac Herzog listen to reporters' questions as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Joe Biden and Israel's President Isaac Herzog listen to reporters' questions as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON — President Isaac Herzog assured US President Joe Biden during a White House meeting Tuesday that Israel’s democracy is “strong and resilient,” as tens of thousands of protesters against the government’s judicial overhaul plan engaged in a “Day of Resistance” back home.

Sitting alongside Biden in the Oval Office, Herzog appeared to reference the protests, saying, “My heart and soul is also in Israel, in the heated debate which we are going through as a society. It is a heated debate, but it is also a virtue and a tribute to the greatness of Israeli democracy.

“Let me reiterate and be crystal clear, Israeli democracy is sound, strong, and resilient,” Herzog added during his brief remarks in front of reporters.

“We shall always seek to find an amicable consensus, and I agree with you on that as well. I am pursuing that even in these very moments… in order to find solutions and emerge from this crisis properly,” the Israeli president said.

After weighing in several times in recent months to warn Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government against advancing the original version of its overhaul and to only adopt judicial reforms that have consensus support, Biden notably made no mention of the issue during his comments before the press.

The US president kept his remarks overwhelmingly positive, highlighting his commitment to the Jewish state and to the US-Israel relationship before running through a brief list of accomplishments in the Middle East.

Anti-judicial overhaul demonstrators block a road during a protest against the judicial overhaul near Yokneam, July 18, 2023. Banner reads ‘Free in our land.’ (Anat Hermony/Flash90)

Privately though, Biden told Herzog that it was vital for coalition and opposition leaders to strike a compromise on judicial reform, according to an Israeli official who shared details with reporters after the meeting on condition of anonymity.

Herzog and Biden “noted the strength of the US-Israel relationship, based on the bedrock of shared democratic values and discussed the need for a consensus-based approach to the judicial reform package,” according to the White House readout.

Biden also told Herzog that all the noise and mass protests around the issue make it harder for the administration to advance regional peace, the Israeli official said. In the past, Biden officials have tied Israel’s policies on the Palestinians to US efforts to expand the Abraham Accords, but this appeared to be the first time Washington was also connecting the judicial overhaul to the accords as well.

Herzog responded to Biden that he was working to find common ground between the parties and that he believes in negotiations he has championed, but which are currently frozen, the Israeli official said.

Herzog told reporters outside the White House after the meeting that Biden’s decision to ask about the overhaul during their meeting wasn’t done to “annoy” Israel, but was rather a result of his “deep concern” for the country’s democracy. Herzog’s assertion appeared to be pushback against some of Netanyahu’s allies, who have lashed out or dismissed criticism of the overhaul from the US and other allies as inappropriate interventions in Israel’s internal affairs.

Herzog argued that concern from countries like the US should be “another factor” that Israel’s leaders take into account and another reason why they should try and return to negotiations aimed at a compromise.

Those talks fell apart last month and the government has since resumed advancement of the overhaul, readying to pass the first piece of legislation from the controversial package next week and reanimating the protest movement in the process.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog speaks to the media outside the West Wing of the White House after meeting with President Joe Biden, Tuesday, July 18, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Herzog told reporters he and Biden also discussed the Iranian nuclear threat, expanding the Abraham Accords and “operations by Hezbollah to light up the region,” days after a series of security incidents on Israel’s northern border.

According to the White House readout, the pair discussed “enhanced coordination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and Iran’s growing defense partnership with Russia.”

Biden before the one-hour private meeting stressed his “deep-rooted and long-lasting” love for Israel, reiterating one of his favorite lines about the Jewish state: “If there wasn’t an Israel, we would have to invent one.”

“America’s commitment to Israel is firm and it is ironclad, and we are committed as well to ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon.” Biden continued. “This is a friendship that I believe is simply unbreakable, and together we are working to bring more integration and stability in the Middle East.”

“There’s a lot of hard work, we’ve got a lot more to do, but there is progress,” he said, pointing to a 2022 maritime deal between Israel and Lebanon, which his administration brokered; decisions by Saudi Arabia and Oman to open their airspace to Israeli overflights following US coaxing; convening the Negev Forum working groups — the largest gathering of Israeli and Arab officials in over a decade to advance regional projects; and convening a pair of Israeli-Palestinian summits in Jordan and Egypt earlier this year.

The US said Netanyahu agreed during a Monday call with Biden to hold a third summit with the Palestinian Authority in the near future.

The Israeli official said that during the private meeting, Biden underscored that Israel has a right to defend itself but also expressed concern over recent settler attacks against Palestinians that have gone largely unpunished.

President Joe Biden meets with Israel’s President Isaac Herzog in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

According to the White House readout, Biden “reiterated his commitment to maintaining a path for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the best avenue to a lasting and just peace, and to providing Israelis and Palestinians equal measures of freedom, prosperity and security.”

He also “stressed the need to take additional measures to improve the security and economic situation in the West Bank and prevent acts of terrorism.”

They also discussed the joint effort to fold Israel into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which they expected would come to fruition in the coming months following recent progress, the Israeli official said.

US officials have insisted that in order to enter the VWP Israel must commit to granting reciprocal travel rights to all American travelers, including ones of Arab and Muslim descent who have long said they face discrimination at Ben Gurion Airport.

Building on the recently launched US strategy to counter antisemitism, the two leaders agreed on the need to continue to work together to address the persistent scourge, the White House said in its readout on the meeting.

Herzog thanked the US president in the Oval Office for advancing Israel’s integration in the region, ostensibly referencing the Biden administration’s efforts to broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In recent weeks though, US officials have acknowledged that a deal has become all but impossible due to the recent flareup in the West Bank and because of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

But the two leaders did discuss the potential for an agreement with Saudi Arabia during their meeting, the Israeli official said, noting that Biden emphasized that securing a normalization deal was a key priority for his administration.

The Palestinian issue and the overhaul have become major sticking points in relations between Israel and the US since the establishment of Netanyahu’s hardline government on December 29.

Only on Monday did Biden agree to meet with Netanyahu later this year after refusing to invite him to the White House and repeatedly speaking out against the government’s overhaul and its “extreme” members who back unrestricted settlement growth in the West Bank.

Police stand in front of protesters against the judicial overhaul in Ramat Gan, July 18, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Herzog referenced those disagreements in his remarks beside Biden but was careful to downplay them. “There are some enemies of ours that sometimes mistake the fact that we may have some differences as impacting our unbreakable bond, and I truly believe that if they would know how much our cooperation has grown in recent years and achieved new heights they would not think that way.”

Herzog’s one-on-one Oval Office meeting with Biden lasted 40 minutes before they were joined by their top aides for an additional half-hour, the Israeli official said.

After leaving the Oval Office, Herzog met later Tuesday afternoon with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Early Wednesday morning, he will meet with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan before giving an address to a joint session of Congress in honor of Israel’s 75th anniversary. He will then meet with Vice President Kamala Harris.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers his remarks at the State Department in Washington, Monday, July 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

He will spend Thursday, Friday and Saturday in New York City where he 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.

Until Biden’s Monday call with Netanyahu during which the two leaders agreed to meet, some in the administration feared that media focus on Washington’s supposed snub of the Israeli premier would overshadow Herzog’s visit, a source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.

But with that issue out of the way, Herzog now has the space to set his own agenda, the source speculated.

Still, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Monday, “This doesn’t mean we have less concerns about the judicial reform or about the extremists in the Israeli government. We remain concerned.”

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