Middle East Eye / July 18, 2023
Despite rising violence against Palestinians and controversial judicial reforms, analysts say Biden is keen to show US-Israel ties are as strong as ever.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to the White House is a US move to showcase the strength of its ties with Israel and temper the sentiment that the allies are drifting apart, analysts have told Middle East Eye.
Herzog is visiting the US amid Israel’s heightened use of military force against Palestinians and controversial attempts by the ruling coalition to limit the power of Israel’s judiciary through an “overhaul”.
Herzog met with President Joe Biden and other White House officials on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he will deliver an address to a joint session of Congress.
The White House described the meeting with Herzog as being about strengthening the “ironclad” relationship between Israel and the US, and reiterated its “unwavering commitment” to Israel’s security.
Analysts told MEE that the visit by Herzog, whose role as president is largely ceremonial, allows the Biden administration to demonstrate that US-Israel ties are as strong as they have ever been and that the relationship transcends the current government in Israel.
“Immediately after this current government came into took office, we started to hear language about the US-Israel relationship being stronger than one government or the policies of one government. And I think that’s something this administration and Democrats in Congress are leaning into hard,” Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, told MEE.
Since being elected to another term as prime minister last year, Benjamin Netanyahu has been leading what is considered to be the most far-right governing coalition in Israel’s history.
This new government has led to a shift in the relationship between Israel and many lawmakers in the US, including pro-Israel Democrats who have raised alarms over the actions of the Netanyahu government.
In turn, Republicans have attacked Biden and other Democrats for being “anti-Israel”, with several Republican candidates on Monday criticizing Biden and his political party for not inviting Netanyahu to the White House.
“In a way, they’re (the Biden administration) trying to deflate the Republican critique that Biden is anti-Israel or he’s throwing Israel under the bus,” Khaled ElGindy, director of the Middle East Institute’s Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian Affairs program, told MEE.
“By inviting the Israeli president, who has no official political authority, it’s a way to kind of get around that critique he’s anti-Israel.”
The visit by Herzog raised some questions as to why Netanyahu was not invited, given that Netanyahu serves as the head of the country. Biden and Netanyahu’s call on Monday involved discussions of a meeting between the two, but it ended up creating more confusion. The Israeli readout of the conversation says Netanyahu was invited to the US, but the White House’s version makes no mention of it.
However, a White House official confirmed with Middle East Eye that a meeting between the two would take place in the US, and would happen “likely sometime in the fall”.
Israel has long enjoyed bipartisan support in the halls of US Congress and by successive American presidents. However, over the past several years, this support has been challenged, as a larger number of Democrats have voiced criticism towards the country.
In recent congressional elections in the US, several pro-Israel groups also went on to spend millions of dollars in several key races, receiving funding from Republican donors. And the groups have been endorsing Republicans that refused to certify the election of President Biden.
The result led to moderate and pro-Israel Democrats lambasting pro-Israel groups like AIPAC for funding negative campaign ads against their fellow party members.
And since March, Biden has made remarks that have caused a stir amongst Netanyahu and members of his cabinet, particularly National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir who recently said that Israel is “no longer a star” on the US flag.
Earlier this year, Biden said Israel “cannot continue down this road”, referring to the ongoing attempts to reform Israel’s judiciary, prompting the Israeli prime minister to say he will not bow to “pressures from abroad”.
Last week, Biden said in an interview with CNN that the current far-right governing coalition is “one of the most extreme” governments in Israel that he has seen in his decades in politics. He further said the cabinet members in this government are partly to blame for the rising violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
However, while media reports in the US say that Israel and the US have had strained relations in recent years, partly because of the moves the Netanyahu government has made to expand settlements and attack the country’s judiciary, analysts told MEE that Washington has made it clear through its public statements that there are no clear red lines Israel cannot cross.
MEE previously reported on how the US response to the recent Israeli military raid on the occupied West Bank city of Jenin, which killed 12 Palestinians, illustrated the free hand Israel has when it comes to the use of violence against Palestinians.
Palestinians have witnessed heightened violence this year from Israeli forces and settler groups. More than 170 Palestinians have been killed both by settlers and Israeli forces so far this year.
The US responded to Israel’s raid on Jenin by saying it supported “Israel’s security and right to defend its people against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist groups”.
“This [visit] is about bear hugging Israel, the idea of the nation, the people, the relationship,” said Friedman.
“The relationship is bigger than any of these policies. US unconditional, unshakable support for Israel’s security is bigger than any [judicial] reform.”
Umar Farooq is a journalist based in Washington DC