WASHINGTON – Israel's figurehead president Isaac Herzog sought to assure President Joe Biden that Israel remains committed to democracy amid deepening U.S. concerns over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial plans to overhaul his country’s judicial system and ongoing settlement construction in the West Bank.
Sitting by Biden's side at the start of their Oval Office meeting on Tuesday, Herzog told Biden that Israel's democracy remains “sound, strong” and “resilient” while acknowledging the country is going through a fractious moment.
Herzog's visit comes a day after Biden spoke with Netanyahu by phone and invited him to meet in the U.S. this fall, although the president expressed reservations about several of the Netanyahu hard-right coalition's policies. Netanyahu’s government is pushing forward with judicial changes that have sparked widespread protest in Israel and he has authorized the construction of thousands of new housing units in the West Bank.
“We are going through pains. We are going through heated debates,” Herzog said. “We have gone through challenging moments. But I truly, truly believe and I say to you Mr. President, as I’ve said it as head of state to the people of Israel, we should always seek to find amicable consensus, and I agree with you on that as well. ”
Netanyahu and his allies, a collection of ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties, say the plan is needed to rein in the powers of unelected judges. Opponents say the plan will destroy Israel’s fragile system of checks and balances and move the country toward authoritarian rule.
Herzog has appealed for a compromise that has thus far proven elusive. Many American Jewish groups and Democratic lawmakers have expressed concerns about the plan.
With differences in plain view, Biden sought to stress the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship in his brief remarks before reporters.
“This is a friendship I believe is just simply unbreakable," Biden said. "As I confirmed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday, America’s commitment to Israel is firm and it is ironclad.”
During his U.S. visit, Herzog is also to meet Vice President Kamala Harris and congressional leaders. On Wednesday he will become the second Israeli president, after his father Chaim Herzog, to address Congress. His speech will mark Israel’s celebration of its 75th year of independence.
Herzog’s visit comes weeks after Israeli forces carried out one of their most intensive operations in the West Bank in two decades, with a two-day air and ground offensive in Jenin, a militant stronghold in the occupied West Bank. Senior members of Netanyahu’s government have been pushing for increased construction and other measures to cement Israel’s control over the West Bank in response to a more than yearlong wave of violence with the Palestinians.
U.S. officials have broadly supported Israel’s right to defend itself from militant attacks but have also urged restraint to minimize harm to civilians and have lobbied against additional settlements that would further diminish the chances of securing a two-state solution between Israel and Palestinians.
The Biden administration declined to say whether Biden would host Netanyahu at the White House — as the Israeli leader has hoped — or in New York on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly.
White House visits are typically standard protocol for Israeli prime ministers, and the delay in Netanyahu receiving one has become an issue in Israel, with opponents citing it as a reflection of deteriorating relations with the U.S.
Herzog said the Biden-Netanyahu conversation sent an important message to the region.
“I was pleased to hear about your conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu in which you focused on our ironclad military and security cooperation because there are some enemies of ours that sometimes mistake the fact that we may have some differences as impacting our unbreakable bond,” Herzog said.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Biden again on Monday expressed concern to Netanyahu over the judicial plan — as he did when they last spoke earlier this year — and urged the “broadest possible consensus” over the legislation that has been pushed by Netanyahu and his hard-line coalition.
Kirby said during the call that the two leaders discussed Iran’s nuclear program and regional security issues. Biden also “expressed concern” over Israel’s continued settlement growth in the West Bank and urged Israel to take steps to preserve the viability of a two-state solution with Palestinians.
Biden, Kirby said, also welcomed steps by the Palestinian Authority to reassert security control in Jenin and other areas of the West Bank and moves by Israel and Palestinians to move toward another round of direct talks.
Progressive lawmakers, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush and Ilhan Omar have pledged to boycott Herzog's address in protest of Israel's policies.
Herzog's visit comes days after Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the influential 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, sparked outrage for calling Israel a “racist state," including criticism from House Democratic leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries. Jayapal later said she was criticizing Israel's government, not its existence as a country.
Kirby said Biden was glad she apologized. “We think an apology was the right thing to do," he told reporters Monday.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim all three territories for a future independent state.
Israel has annexed east Jerusalem and claims it as part of its capital — a claim that is not internationally recognized. It says the West Bank is disputed territory whose fate should be determined through negotiations, while Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Two years later, the Hamas militant group overran the territory.