analysisU.S.-Israel Relations

Herzog crafts a story of partnership to survive toughest of disagreements

Herzog took the topic of Israel’s judicial reforms and spun the “heated debate” in Israel as “a virtue and a tribute to the greatness of Israeli democracy,” pledging that he would “seek to find amicable consensus on the issue,”

President Joe Biden welcomes President Isaac Herzog to the Oval Office, Oct. 26, 2022. Source: POTUS/Twitter.
President Joe Biden welcomes President Isaac Herzog to the Oval Office, Oct. 26, 2022. Source: POTUS/Twitter.
Mike Wagenheim. Credit: Courtesy.
Mike Wagenheim
Mike Wagenheim is the senior U.S. correspondent at the Israel-based i24NEWS TV network. He covers the United Nations and a host of other beats for JNS.

Just as Israel’s president was settling in following a busy day in Washington, a gift came his way from the Capitol, courtesy of the Jewish state’s opponents.

Less than 24 hours before he was to address a joint session of Congress, the House passed a Republican-sponsored resolution stating that Israel is not a racist or apartheid state. The resolution’s filing was inspired by a flippant insult hurled at Israel by the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who, under heavy pressure from House leadership and rank-and-file from her own party, attempted to walk back her comment.

Only nine members, all from the hard left, voted against the resolution, with 412 in favor, including 195 Democrats.

Fears of Herzog’s visit being overshadowed by any number of issues—domestic Israeli political strife, sharp tensions in the U.S-Israel relationship, the lack of a similar White House invitation to Israel’s prime minister—certainly didn’t disappear on Tuesday.

But Herzog’s command of his hour in the Oval Office, combined with progressive Democrats’ foolish insistence on showing how much Congress actually values Israel, tamped down some of those worries.    

In the most consequential room in America, dealing with the world’s most consequential leader, Herzog seemingly took control of the narrative. Accentuating the positive and owning the negative, Herzog took a meeting with the U.S. president and crafted a story of partnership that would survive even the toughest of disagreements.

In his own opening statement in the Oval Office, Herzog told Biden and journalists that he was “pleased to hear about your conversation with [Israeli] Prime Minister Netanyahu, which focused on our ironclad military and security cooperation.”

The call between Biden and Netanyahu—the first in several months—seemed timed by the Biden administration to take the anti-Netanyahu card off the prime minister’s table, and to assure Herzog’s trip didn’t put a heavy microscope on the Biden-Netanyahu relationship.

Noting that “enemies of ours that sometimes mistake the fact that we may have some differences as impacting our unbreakable bond,” Herzog twisted the tale into one of “how much our cooperation has grown in recent years and achieved new heights,” alluding to behind-the-scenes partnerships in any number of government-to-government programs which go unrecognized in the daily news cycle.

Herzog took the topic of Israel’s judicial reforms, which have drawn the personal ire of Biden, and spun the “heated debate” over the issue in Israel as “a virtue and a tribute to the greatness of Israeli democracy,” pledging, as chief negotiator between the Israeli government and opposition, that he would “seek to find amicable consensus on the issue,” as Biden has essentially demanded.

He told reporters after the meeting that “when the president of the greatest power in the world asks questions like he asked [Netanyahu] yesterday, it’s not to upset, but out of deep concern and consideration of our need as a nation in these very moments to reach understandings and agreements and dialogue, because in the end, Israel is very important to the world, to the region and the United States. This should be a consideration for our brothers and sisters in Israel.”

One of the main missions of Herzog’s trip was to remind Biden why he constantly describes himself as a Zionist and why he holds, as he told Herzog at the outset of Tuesday’s meeting, a love for Israel that is “deep-rooted and long-lasting.”

From that standpoint, Herzog seemed to say all the right things, at least when the doors were open to journalists.

Behind closed doors, an Israeli diplomatic source said that Biden, while emphasizing Israel’s right to defend itself, issued a word of caution about “price tag” violence against Arabs. Herzog, according to the source, countered by noting the increase in Palestinian terrorism in recent months and the increasing loss of life among Israeli citizens.

While the spiraling security situation across the so-called Green Line has been a top-line agenda item for the Biden administration for months, and is often used as a cudgel against the Israeli government’s policies vis a vis the Palestinians, statements and readouts from Tuesday’s meetings provided little indication of administration anger toward Jerusalem or lopsided blame of Israel.

The source indicated that Herzog and Biden met one-on-one for around 40 minutes, followed by an extended 90-minute bilateral session, in which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan joined in.

Normalization efforts with Saudi Arabia, brokered by Washington, were termed as complex but possible by Biden’s side, according to the source. Many analysts say the window of opportunity on that issue is closing fast, due to congressional opposition to Riyadh’s demands and the upcoming U.S. presidential election, which will take focus and energy away from big-ticket foreign policy goals.

Biden reiterated the need, from Washington’s standpoint, for broad agreement in Israel regarding the government’s judicial reform effort, calling the “struggles in Israel and the noise surrounding them” problematic for making regional progress. 

Israel’s entry into the U.S. visa waiver program was also addressed, with the Biden administration saying efforts were progressing.

Herzog’s meetings with Biden and later in the afternoon with Blinken also focused on Iran, regional integration, Israeli security and antisemitism. 

At the top of the one-on-one with Blinken, Washington’s top diplomat told Herzog that he had the administration’s support in trying to negotiate a resolution to the controversial judicial reforms.

“What you have been doing, the leadership you have shown in affirming those values, bringing people together in affirmation of those values, could not be more important,” said Blinken.

While Herzog stayed away from any mention of the Palestinians in his public comments on Tuesday, Blinken stressed the need to make progress on a two-state solution.

Herzog has a packed schedule for Wednesday, including a pair of rarities. He’ll first attend a seldom-held bipartisan congressional leadership meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Then, he’ll address a joint session of Congress, becoming only the second Israeli president—behind his father and former Israeli President Chaim Herzog—to ever do so.

He’ll then meet with the bipartisan Abraham Accords Caucus before a one-on-one with Vice President Kamala Harris. 

Herzog departs for New York on Thursday for meetings with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and members of the Jewish community.

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