Middle East

Biden to welcome Israel’s Herzog to White House

By Kevin Liptak, CNN

CNN  —  Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to the White House on Tuesday is meant to demonstrate steadfast American commitment to Israel and its security 75 years after the country’s establishment.

But the Oval Office talks could also serve to underscore the lingering tensions between President Joe Biden and the Israeli leader who hasn’t yet visited Washington since returning to office last year: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Tensions between Biden and Netanyahu’s right-wing government have persisted for months, in part over contentious plans for a judicial overhaul and what Biden regards as extremist positions taken by members of Netanyahu’s government. Israel’s moves to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank have also drawn US criticism.

In a step that could ease some of the strain, the White House said on Monday that Biden and Netanyahu would meet in the coming months in the United States. But it remained unclear if those talks would mirror the type of Oval Office meeting Netanyahu has long sought, and that Herzog will participate in Tuesday.

Welcoming Herzog, whose role is largely ceremonial, provides Biden an opportunity to demonstrate his pro-Israel credentials, even as he continues to harbor deep concerns about Netanyahu’s leadership.

Herzog is due to address Congress a day later, allowing for a bipartisan show of support for a top strategic ally in the Middle East. He is only the second Israeli president to deliver an address to both houses of Congress; the first was his father, Chaim Herzog, in 1987.

Some Democratic members of Congress have said they will boycott the speech in protest of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. One, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, drew rebukes from Republicans and Democrats alike for saying over the weekend that “Israel is a racist state,” a statement she later partly walked back.

Herzog is a former Labor Party leader who once ran for Prime Minister against Netanyahu, but in his current role he has sought to bridge differences between the government and members of the opposition.

In a statement, Herzog’s office said his visit is intended “to strengthen the relations and the partnership between the US and Israel, and to reflect the deep ties between the countries which are placed above all controversy.”

He is also planning to meet separately with Vice President Kamala Harris, in part to discuss efforts to combat climate change.

The visit comes as Netanyahu moves ahead with his plan that would lessen judicial oversight of the executive and legislative branches. The proposal has drawn hundreds of thousands of Israelis to protest and received sharp criticism from Biden.

The two men spoke by phone Monday in what Netanyahu’s office described as a “long and warm conversation.” Israel’s readout said Biden had invited Netanyahu to the United States for a meeting, though it didn’t specify if the talks would occur at the White House or somewhere else.

The White House said the two men would “probably” meet before the end of the year. John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, said the talks would likely occur in the autumn but it remained to be decided when or where.

That left open the prospect of a meeting taking place away from the White House, potentially on the sidelines of the annual United Nations meetings in New York. Biden himself had said on multiple occasions over the past few months that he didn’t foresee inviting Netanyahu to Washington anytime soon, in part due to concerns over the judicial reforms.

Kirby said Biden’s decision to agree to a meeting shouldn’t signal any change in his stance on the judicial changes or other concerns with Netanyahu’s allies in government.

“You shouldn’t take away from the fact that they had a conversation today and that they will meet again in the Fall that we have less concerns over these judicial reforms or less concerns over some of the extremist activities and behavior by some members of the Netanyahu cabinet,” he said Monday. “Those concerns are still valid.”

Speaking to CNN last week, Biden called some members of Netanyahu’s government some “of the most extremist members of cabinets that I’ve seen” and suggested the prime minister was still grappling with his own political situation.

“Bibi, I think, is trying to work through how he could work through his existing problems in terms of his coalition,” Biden told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

The president didn’t answer directly when asked when Netanyahu would get a White House invitation. The lack of a White House invite has angered Netanyahu, who returned to office in December after previously serving as prime minister for more than a decade.

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