Pompeo sits down with Ben Gvir to talk right-wing policies

Top US lawmakers converge in Israel for talks on Iran, judicial shakeup

Netanyahu, Herzog and others meet with Senate delegations from both parties as well as House representatives on trips sponsored by J Street and US Israel Education Association

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (fourth from right) meets with US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (fourth from left) and GOP senators in his office, February 23, 2023 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (fourth from right) meets with US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (fourth from left) and GOP senators in his office, February 23, 2023 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The top Democrats and Republicans in the Senate and several other US lawmakers taking part in a series of visiting congressional delegations met with Israel’s leadership this week to discuss judicial overhaul plans, Iran and ties between Jerusalem and Washington.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with a group of US Republican senators in his Jerusalem office on Thursday, headed by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

They were joined by US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer.

“You are a true friend of Israel,” Netanyahu said to the Kentucky lawmaker.

The delegation included Markwayne Mullin (Oklahoma), Jodi Ernst (Iowa),  Ted Budd (North Carolina), Thom Tillis (North Carolina), and Katie Britt (Alabama).

Later Thursday, President Isaac Herzog met with a group of Democratic senators, led by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

President Isaac Herzog (seated on right) meets with US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (seated on left) and Democratic members of the Senate, February 23, 2023 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

“You are going to see here, of course, the internal and the external issues that are on our agenda,” said Herzog, “Iran being the number one. Unfortunately, a major threat to the region.”

Schumer praised Herzog’s efforts to bring supporters and opponents of the ongoing judicial reform to the negotiating table.

“You give everybody a great deal of optimism,” he said. “Somebody like you in this position, with your talent and your ability to bring people together and listen to all sides.”

The Democratic delegation included Peter Welch (Vermont), Gary Peters (Michigan), Maria Cantwell (Washington), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota),  Catherine Cortez Masto (Nevada), Jack Reed (Rhode Island) and Ron Wyden (Oregon).

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also in Israel this week, as is GOP Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

A poster comparing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar is seen during a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul legislation, in Jerusalem on February 20, 2023. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit party, tweeted Thursday that he met Pompeo and the two discussed “Israel’s policies under our right-wing government.”

Most US officials have avoided publicly meeting with Ben Gvir, a former disciple of extremist rabbi Meir Kahana, and other far-right members of Netanyahu’s cabinet.

There was no comment from Pompeo on the meeting.

Cotton, who met with Netanyahu Wednesday,  tweeted that he and the prime minister discussed shared economic and security interests.

Netanyahu also met on Wednesday with a delegation of Democratic lawmakers led by the progressive J Street lobby, including Rep. Katie Porter of California, who has announced she is planning to run for the Senate in 2024.

‘A strong democracy’

In a separate meeting, Netanyahu sat down with a bipartisan delegation of members of Congress led by the US Israel Education Association.

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu emphasized “the importance of the bipartisan relationship between Israel and the US” in all his meetings and discussed both the Abraham Accords and Iran’s nuclear activities.

Juan Vargas, a California Democrat and member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told The Times of Israel that he is not concerned about the changes to Israel’s judicial system being advanced by the Netanyahu government.

“At the end of the day, the changes that are made or not made, I still think that Israel is a very strong democracy, the only democracy in the Middle East, and I think our relationship continues to get stronger,” said Vargas, in Israel with the Education Association trip.

US Representative Juan Vargas of California in Jerusalem, February 23, 2023 (USIEA)

“I think most people don’t even understand it because the judicial system here is different than the judicial system in the United States,” he continued.

Texas Congressman Randy Weber said that Netanyahu told the visitors that “he’s going to get this done,” referring to the judicial reform.

“It’s going to leave power with the people, not with a bunch of bureaucrats,” Netanyahu told the  group, according to Weber.

The group also discussed Iran at length with Netanyahu and Dermer.

Vargas, who opposed the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal, said that he wants to see more intrusive inspections, and to have “at least element to the make the bomb taken outside the country.”

The five House members on the Education Association trip said they would begin working on a bipartisan resolution saying that the US “is going to support Israel at any cost,” meant as a warning to Tehran.

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