(October 25, 2022 / JNS) Israeli President Isaac Herzog embarked for Washington on Monday night where he is slated to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office on Wednesday.
The Israeli leader is also scheduled to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, as well as with Jewish leaders and Congress members.
Before he left Israel, Herzog said he planned to discuss “important developments in our region, from the Abraham Accords to the gas deal with Lebanon, and of course to our desire and hope to have more nations join the circle of regional peace. Of course, most importantly the Iranian threat, which is destabilizing not only the Middle East but the entire world, requiring a firm and united stand against it.”
The trip comes a week before Israel’s fifth national election in just over three and a half years. Herzog will play a central role once the vote counting ends and he meets with party leaders to decide whom he will give the mandate to try and build a coalition. Herzog’s visit also comes just two weeks before Americans go to the polls for midterm elections in which they will determine the composition of the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate.
Herzog’s visit follows an invitation extended by Biden during his visit to Israel in July. The invitation was intended to reinforce the strong partnership between the United States and Israel and to reflect the deep ties between the nations.
U.S. administration officials are highly interested in the outcome of Israel’s elections and Herzog will spend a lot of time fielding questions on the parties and their platforms as well as how the next government coalition will be shaped.
“Obviously the Biden administration does not want to see a full-right government established by [opposition leader Benjamin] Netanyahu,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University and a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “They want to see a national unity government.
“They prefer [Prime Minister Yair] Lapid over Netanyahu; there is no question about it,” he told JNS.
According to Gilboa, the timing of the meeting is important because of the maritime border agreement Israel recently reached with Lebanon, which was brokered by the U.S.
“Biden wants to show he is as good as [former U.S. President Donald] Trump for Israel,” said Gilboa. “Biden could say, ‘Trump achieved the Abraham Accords. I helped achieve the Lebanese gas deal.’”
With this feather in his cap, Biden is hoping to use the meeting to convince those who have not yet decided whom to vote for in the congressional elections to vote for a Democratic Party candidate.
Herzog wants to make sure that regardless of the type of government Israel has, American-Israeli relations will remain tight-knit.
In his statement ahead of his departure for the U.S., Herzog said he would meet with the leaders of American Jewry, “as part of our efforts to strengthen and reinforce the bridges between Israel and world Jewry.”
Gilboa believes it is likely that when the American Jewish leaders meet with Herzog, they will tell him that if Netanyahu establishes a full-right government with parliamentarians Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Religious Zionist Party, it will increase the rift between American Jews and Israel.
The Israeli president was himself a political candidate in Israel’s 2015 election when he headed the Zionist Union Party and campaigned against Netanyahu for the premiership. At the time, he was accused of receiving support from V15, a political grassroots group based in the U.S. and funded by American billionaire S. Daniel Abraham. The Obama administration allegedly used V15 in an attempt to influence the election in a bid to remove Netanyahu from power.
In a recent interview with JNS, Netanyahu addressed V15 and the concern over the U.S. meddling in Israel’s elections.
“Under President Obama, the State Department gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to NGOs working to topple my government. There’s no question. In an election campaign. Was that effective? I don’t think so, but I would advise them not to do it,” he said.
Jonathan Rynhold, the head of the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University, told JNS the Biden administration “will be very careful not to be seen as intervening” in the election. They will want to know from Herzog what he thinks.”
Rynhold also said the administration is thinking “very seriously” about whether they would like to see Netanyahu in a unity government at all, let alone in a coalition with the far-right and haredi parties.
Given that officials from the Obama administration now serve on the Biden team and given the history of U.S. meddling in Israel’s elections, which Netanyahu said former President Bill Clinton admitted to, Washington may pressure Herzog privately to find a way to either tap Lapid for the premiership or push a unity government if Netanyahu is given the mandate to build a coalition.
Since Herzog will be front and center in the aftermath of this election campaign in his role as president, the Biden team will also want to know what he’ll do if there is no clear result.
From Biden’s perspective, the meeting helps him in the midterms.
According to Rynhold, “Herzog is a good pro-Israel figure for him. The conservatives see him as pro-Israel and the left would find it hard to dislike Herzog, who was the head of the left-leaning Labor Party.”
While the meeting between the two leaders holds special significance occurring just before elections in both countries, the meeting is really being held for nothing more than “a sounding-out and to build the relationship,” Rynhold said.
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