A senior member of the National Security Council, which advises the U.S. president, said on Monday that U.S. President Joe Biden wants to see compromise on future Israeli legislation despite the government’s passage of the “reasonableness” law, an important part of judicial reform.
Terry Wolff, the council’s senior director for Middle East and North Africa, spoke about the new law and about Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s recent visit to Washington and New York during a White House video briefing for the American Jewish community.
“Some folks will decide based on what they’ve heard—and the fact that a good number of folks boycotted the vote—that it’s all over,” Wolff said. “But I think the president’s argument and his perspective has been that it’s really important that the sides get together, that they talk and that discussion should not be over.”
Judicial reform in Israel was one of many issues that Biden and Herzog discussed last week in their meeting in the Oval Office, according to Wolff.
“One is the regional concerns, and the second is really kind of Israel proper and the domestic challenge that Israel is experiencing,” he said. Iran topped the list of those regional concerns, which also included Russia and China, according to Wolff.
“They talked about normalization. They talked about opportunities with the Abraham Accords, as well as the Negev Forum, and where that goes next,” he said.
The conversation, Wolff said, is one that happens continually in official channels between the United States and Israel.
“There’s a healthy dialogue. We don’t always agree on everything, but at the same time, we do talk about just about everything,” he said. “This was in a way just a refreshing of the constant themes that we are always tackling with our Israeli friends.”
Samantha Sutton, director for Israel and Palestinian affairs at the National Security Council, who also participated in the briefing, echoed Wolff’s perspective on broad American-Israeli cooperation.
Sutton, who recently ended her tenure as chief of staff to former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides and worked for the U.S. mission to the United Nations at the U.S. Department of Defense, told attendees that she has seen “the breadth of issues that we cooperate with Israel on” at the United Nations, in Jerusalem and at the Pentagon.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” she said. “It’s not just on security or the Palestinians.”
A familiar agenda
Many of these topics surfaced in a phone call last week between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, their first direct communication in months.
“It’s almost the same agenda of discussion topics from the Herzog meeting, and it’s exactly what you’d expect that these two leaders would talk about,” Wolff said.
“President Biden did spend a little more time with the prime minister talking about judicial reform, and trying to understand it from the president’s vantage point,” he said.
Prior to Herzog’s address to a joint session of Congress last week, a “good number” of U.S. officials watched a 1987 C-SPAN video of the president’s father—the late Chaim Herzog, then Israel’s president—speech before Congress.
“We watched the entire thing,” Wolff said, calling it “quite remarkable” to compare and contrast the father’s and son’s speeches.
Ilan Goldenberg, special adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris for Middle East and North Africa, said during the briefing that the setting was right—given Harris’s focus on Africa and Israel’s attention to the region—for the joint announcement from the vice president and Herzog of a climate technology initiative.
“This is part of Israel’s ‘near abroad,’” said Goldenberg, referring to an area outside the immediate region but within Israel’s sphere of influence. “There are a lot of opportunities there for collaboration that, frankly, I’m only seeing for the first time, despite all my different roles in government. There are always new things to learn.”
He said on the call that Harris “raised the importance of working with Palestinians” on climate and environmental issues “by investing in renewable-energy projects that can help spur Palestinian economic growth” with Herzog, even though the Palestinians are not a part of the new climate technology program.
“That is separate and apart from the project, but was also part of the agenda that we discussed,” he said.
Sutton, who assisted Nides on efforts to gain Israel entry into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, cited the announcement during Herzog’s visit that Washington and Jerusalem had signed a Memorandum of Understanding on a pilot program.
The program is designed to ensure that Palestinian Americans and other Arab Americans are treated at entry points to Israel in a manner that fits the Visa Waiver Program parameters. Israel had long avoided reducing such scrutiny, citing security concerns.
Sutton said on the call that she was skeptical that Israel would be accepted into the Visa Waiver Program but has since changed her mind.
“I was doubtful, to be honest, just because the list of requirements is so onerous—that go way beyond reciprocity, like data-sharing,” she said. “But it is looking much more promising.”