In US, Herzog says elections shouldn’t affect ties amid tensions over far-right

President says Israel and US must ‘respect each other’s democracies’ ahead of votes in both countries and despite some friction over rise of far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

President Isaac Herzog, left, and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the US Capitol in Washington, October 25, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
President Isaac Herzog, left, and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the US Capitol in Washington, October 25, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

WASHINGTON — Upcoming elections in both Israel and the US should not affect bilateral ties, said President Isaac Herzog on Tuesday during a visit to Washington, amid some tensions over the rise of the Israeli far-right.

At least two pro-Israel Democrats in the US Congress have warned Jerusalem against allowing far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir of the Religious Zionism faction to make further political gains after the upcoming election. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party, whose religious-right bloc relies on Ben Gvir’s party, said in response on Tuesday that he would not “bow his head” to pressure from the US. Netanyahu has declared repeatedly this week that Ben Gvir can serve as a minister in the coalition he hopes to build, having previously ruled out the Otzma Yehudit party leader as “not fit” to hold ministerial office.

Israel will hold elections on November 1, and the US midterms will see Republicans and Democrats vie for control of Congress the following week.

In a meeting with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Herzog stressed that the Israel-US relationship needed to remain above national politics.

“My visit here during this politically sensitive time, both in Israel and in the United States, is intended to underscore that our alliance is above all politics,” Herzog said. “It transcends all governments and political disagreements. That’s how it’s always been and that’s how it shall always remain.”

“I’m here in order to reaffirm that the close and deep friendship between us will continue, whatever the results of the elections in Israel or in the United States. Our bond is strong and unconditional,” Herzog said.

Pelosi’s comments focused on the Israel-Lebanon maritime border agreement and the strength of the Israel-US relationship and did not mention partisan politics.

Speaker Pelosi Welcomes With His Excellency Isaac Herzog, President of the State of Israel

Join His Excellency Isaac Herzog, President of the State of Israel, and me at the United States Capitol ahead of a bilateral leadership meeting.

Posted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday, October 25, 2022

In a meeting with US Jewish leaders, Herzog delivered a similar message.

“You have elections and midterms, we have elections in Israel next week. I think one thing should transcend both — the friendship and close bond between Israel and the United States is unbreakable and it is a value that we must all cherish and work for. May I also add we must respect each other’s democracies,” Herzog said while sitting next to Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Herzog, his brother.

“There will be of course discussions about the outcome,” he said of elections. “First and foremost, the underlying rule should be ‘we honor and respect democracy.’”

US House Representative Brad Sherman and Senator Robert Menendez, both pro-Israel Democrats, have in recent weeks warned Israel over Ben Gvir’s rise.

The Religious Alliance alliance with which Ben Gvir is running for the Knesset is a partnership between Ben Gvir and his Otzma Yehudit party, his ally-rival Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism, and the anti-LGBTQ Noam faction. The alliance, led by Smotrich and with Ben Gvir in the No.2 slot, is projected to be the third-largest Knesset party after elections and is a crucial part of Netanyahu’s right-wing-religious bloc. It is currently polling at around 14 seats

MKs Bezalel Smotrich (left), Itamar Ben Gvir and MK’s from their Religious Zionism party at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem Old city on October 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu rejected US criticism of Religious Zionism and Ben Gvir in a radio interview Tuesday.

“We are a democracy and we will decide who will be in the next government,” Netanyahu told Haredi radio station Kol Barama. “I know how to stand up for us. My ability is to not bow my head, and to say ‘no’ when necessary.”

“I said to Menendez: ‘Are you talking to me about [Ben Gvir] who believes in the State of Israel and supports IDF soldiers? I haven’t heard a word about [Defense Minister Benny] Gantz and [Prime Minister Yair] Lapid partnering with [Ra’am leader] Mansour Abbas and the Muslim Brotherhood, who deny Israel as a Jewish state and go to the mourning tents of murderers of Jews,’” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu is widely reported to have made Ra’am generous offers while wooing the party as he sought support for forming a government after the March 2021 elections, including by his coalition ally Smotrich.

The Likud leader said on Monday that Ben Gvir would be a minister in his coalition, reversing his previously stated opposition to having the far-right politician in his cabinet.

Ben Gvir is a self-described disciple of extremist rabbi and former MK Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned and declared a terror group in the 1980s in both Israel and the US. Like the late Kahane, Ben Gvir has also been convicted on terror charges, though he insists he has moderated in recent years and does not hold the same beliefs as the Kach founder.

He was convicted of incitement to racism in 2007 for holding a sign at a protest reading: “Expel the Arab enemy.”

Until it began to harm him politically, he kept a picture of Baruch Goldstein on a wall of his Hebron home. Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994. Recently, Ben Gvir said he no longer considers Goldstein a “hero.”

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, left, meets with Israel’s President Isaac Herzog in Washington, October 25, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

On Tuesday, Herzog also met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and is scheduled to meet US President Joe Biden on Wednesday at the White House.

During the visit, the two sides have stressed the strength of the Israeli-US relationship, lauded the Lebanon border deal, and highlighted the threat posed by Iran. Blinken expressed concern over recent West Bank violence, and urged both sides to de-escalate.

Herzog is presenting evidence to US officials which shows Iranian drones being used by Russia in its attacks on Ukraine.

Shortly after arriving in Washington, Herzog met with US energy envoy Amos Hochstein, the official who was the key broker in the maritime border talks between Lebanon and Israel.

The deal is expected to be signed on Thursday in Lebanon with Israeli and Lebanese officials in separate rooms and Hochstein on hand.

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