newsU.S.-Israel Relations

Herzog dispels notion of rift between Jewish state and Democratic Party

“This is not a lost arena,” the Israel president said of maintaining good relations with Democrats in Congress.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog, July 12, 2023. Photo by Michael Giladi/Flash90.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog, July 12, 2023. Photo by Michael Giladi/Flash90.

Addressing reporters on July 20, Israeli President Isaac Herzog said there is “a great love of Israel on both sides of the hall” in the U.S. Congress, “contrary to the impression” in Israel.

Herzog said he worked for three months on the speech he delivered to a joint session of Congress on July 18. “It was very exciting to see the enthusiasm that was there,” he said.

Many feel there is a rift between Israel and the Democratic Party in the United States, and many believe that the gulf is widening. But that’s not how the Israeli president sees things, citing the reception he received from across the aisle in Congress as evidence.

“This is not a lost arena,” he said. “This is no small thing.”

In both his speech before Congress, and remarks delivered before and after his July 18 meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office, Herzog drew attention to the virtue and vibrancy of Israel’s democracy in the face of heated debate over judicial reform. Some members of the Israeli public have said that he did not sufficiently criticize the proposed reforms.

JNS has learned that Herzog didn’t feel that it was appropriate for an Israeli president to criticize judicial reform or to ask Biden or Congress to help halt it, and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t try to convince Herzog to try to soften Biden’s position on judicial reform.

An Israeli diplomatic source, who also could not be named, said that although Herzog found Washington to be deeply divided politically, it was more civil than he expected.

While both elements of the progressive left and some on the far-right often agree on criticism of Israel, the diplomatic source found much about which to be happy. “The vast majority of Congress members came and brought a huge amount of guests to the speech,” the diplomatic source said. “They said that not for many years was the hall full to capacity.”

The diplomatic source also described a positive meeting on July 19 between Herzog and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who said the two have become close since the latter visited Israel as a U.S. senator of California. The two announced a new Israel-U.S. climate tech partnership that day at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, part of the White House complex.

“She took the climate issue seriously because she devotes a huge effort to the issue of young people,” the diplomatic source said of Harris.

Progressive wing against contact with Saudis

JNS has learned that the July 18 Oval Office meeting with Biden was more unsettling.

Biden told Herzog that he worries about the Israeli government passing judicial reforms unilaterally and that he expressed strong concern about the possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority, JNS was told.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan echoed Biden’s alarm about the P.A., JNS has also learned.

While the Israeli government cabinet voted on July 9 to act to prevent the collapse of the P.A., Blinken and Sullivan want to see actions implemented, including needed financial steps, viewing it as neither for or against the Palestinians but as an Israeli security interest, JNS was told.

JNS was further told that the Biden administration exerted no pressure on Herzog for Israel to increase aid to Ukraine.

While the administration still largely supports advancing the Abraham Accords, its officials did not go into detail with Herzog about a road forward for normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, JNS was told.

Such a path is complicated by the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, which opposes contact with Saudi leaders.

Additionally, JNS was told that U.S. officials referred often in every conversation about the Abraham Accords to the resumption of the twice-postponed Negev Forum and the needs of Palestinians, who refuse to participate in the multilateral talks.

On July 20, Herzog met with António Guterres in the wake of remarks earlier this month from the secretary-general of the United Nations that Israel “obviously” used excessive force in its counter-terrorism operations in Jenin, in which it killed only known terrorists.

Gilad Erdan, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, called the U.N. head’s remarks “shameful, far-fetched and completely detached from reality.” Guterres refused to retract the comment.

JNS learned that Herzog protested Guterres’s statement on July 20 and explained, one by one, why the U.N. leader’s claims were untrue.

Leaving the world body’s headquarters, JNS asked Herzog how the meeting went.

He smiled and sighed, and said using the Hebrew abbreviation for the United Nations, “It’s OoM”—in other words, it is what it is.

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