Herzog calls Netanyahu's US speech a strategic mistake; has brief meeting with Kerry and Biden

Israel’s relationship with the US “is strategic and not political. It should stay that way,” Herzog said.

February 7, 2015 22:46
4 minute read.
Le chef de l'opposition Itzhak Herzog lors du lancement officiel de la campagne de son parti

Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Vice President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke briefly on Saturday in the hallway of the Munich Security Conference with Zionist Union Party head Isaac Herzog, who is Netanyahu’s chief political rival in the March 17 elections.

An aide to the vice president told the Post that Herzog and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz [Likud] separately greeted Biden "in passing" at the conference, but that "no meetings, formal or informal, were held with either official."

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The meeting occurred just one day after Biden announced he would not attend Netanyahu’s March 3 address to a joint Congressional session in Washington.

The Israeli media and politicians within Herzog’s party spun his brief interaction with Kerry and Biden in such a way that it appeared as if the opposition leader, not Netanyahu, had the ear of the White House.

It shows that "when Herzog speaks, the world listens," MK Shelly Yacimovich of the Zionist Union said.

In a speech before the security conference on Saturday evening, Herzog attacked Netanyahu’s decision to accept an invitation from the House Speaker, Republican John Boehner, to address a joint congressional session on March 3 on the dangers of a nuclear Iran.

“It’s a strategic mistake,” Herzog said from the international stage.

“I would never operate this way as prime minister,” he added.

“I am not here to criticize my prime minister. I intend to replace him in the elections," the opposition leader said.

Israel’s relationship with the US “is strategic and not political. It should stay that way,” Herzog said.

He made a veiled reference to his father Chaim Herzog, who served as Israel’s sixth president, when he said, his family has a history in which it has “interfaced with 13 [US] presidents.”

“I am explaining to my countrymen and to my people that the US is a nation led by presidents and it was always the US presidents who were at our side throughout our history,” he said. “As leaders we must put the interests of our country and our citizens far ahead of our own political survival.”

"The art of diplomacy is not in speeches but in intense intimate coordination with allies who share the same basic interests," Herzog said.

Earlier in the day Herzog told the media, "The time has come when Bibi [Netanyahu] must announce that he is canceling his speech before Congress.” 

"This speech which was born in sin, as part of an election campaign endangers the security of the citizens of Israel and the special relations it has with the US." 

"With all due respect to his campaign, Bibi must lead as a patriot of Israel and not throw Israel's security under the bus of the election," he added. 

The Likud party immediately lashed out at Herzog for putting his own political interests above that of the country by criticizing Netanyahu in an international forum and thereby weakening Israel’s stance against Iran’s nuclear program.

“It’s irresponsible and crosses all red lines,” the party said.

Netanyahu critics have warned that his speech makes Israel a partisan issue, because he is arriving in Washington at the invitation of a powerful republican politician to criticize President Barack Obama’s foreign policy on Iran.

The prime minister is expected to advocate for increased sanctions rather then a negotiated deal with Iran when he addresses Congress.

Obama and Kerry have both said they will not meet with the Prime Minister, because his visit comes right before the election and could be viewed as US intervention in Israeli politics.

The US trip, during which Netanyahu is to address AIPAC, would mark the first time the prime minister would not meet with Obama while in Washington.

Netanyahu’s critics have charged that the absence of such a high-level meeting is a sign of the White House’s displeasure with the prime minister. Biden’s absence from the congressional speech is viewed as further evidence that ties are deteriorating.

Netanyahu’s speech has created a problem from Democrats, some of whom have said they do not plan to attend.

“The prime minister is causing serious damage to Israel’s strategic relations with the United States,” Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid said on Saturday. “Bibi first managed to clash with the White House and now with half of Congress as well. It’s a political move meant only to gain him a few more votes in the election.”

A statement released by aides to Biden, who is usually in his seat whenever a foreign leader addresses the legislature by dint of his position as president of the Senate, indicated that the vice president will be traveling abroad at the time of the speech.

“We are not ready to announce details of his trip yet, and normally our office wouldn’t announce this early, but the planning process has been under way for a while,” an official in the Vice President’s Office told The Jerusalem Post, suggesting the trip has been in the works since before Netanyahu’s visit was announced. “We will announce additional information as soon as we are able.”

Following Biden's decision not to attend Netanyahu's speech, Meretz party head MK Zahva Gal-On said she spoke with senior US officials who said that if the prime minister chose to defer his speech until after the Israeli election, the winning candidate would be invited to speak to Congress in a respectful manner without the accompanying diplomatic storm and boycotts.

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