Fixing the family ties: Herzog tries to save the US-Israel relations

ISRAEL-US AFFAIRS: The alliance is facing tough times right now, and the US remains an irreplaceable strategic ally for Israel.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG meets with US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House on Tuesday (photo credit: KEVIN DIETSCH/GETTY IMAGES)
PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG meets with US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House on Tuesday

WASHINGTON – When Air Force One landed in Israel last summer, US President Joe Biden deplaned with notable energy and greeted President Isaac Herzog by saying: “I am home.”

“You certainly are at home, Mr. President,” Herzog responded.

Upon leaving the White House on Tuesday, Herzog – who lived in the US for several years during his childhood – recounted the story and said that he, too, felt at home, because US-Israel relations are like “family ties.”

That family, however, has become a lot more dysfunctional lately, with Herzog in the unenviable role of trying to keep everyone together.

Biden is not just complaining, Herzog said. Americans feel a “deep concern” for Israel, and the government needs to take that into consideration.

 President Isaac Herzog. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
President Isaac Herzog. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The Biden administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have been on a collision course from day one. Netanyahu’s proudly illiberal coalition partners were persona non grata for departing US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and any other high-level American officials.

Jerusalem’s plans to build homes for Jews in Judea and Samaria were anathema to Washington, which viewed them as an obstacle on the way to its ultimate goal to divide the land and establish a Palestinian state. Tacit statements of Israeli government support for – and a perceived lack of enforcement against – the few Israelis who attacked Palestinians appalled the Americans.

Then there’s Iran. Washington and Jerusalem disagree on what to do to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and that is true of even a president like Herzog, who comes from the Left. The prime minister and his staff say that Biden’s real issue with them is that they won’t promise “no surprises” on actions Israel may take against the Iranian threat.

It’s hard to reach the conclusion that Iran is the main issue dividing the US and Israel these days, even though the differences are great; it seems like more of a politically convenient message for Netanyahu. However, it certainly is another point of friction.

The judicial reform only exacerbated the situation, which would have been tense either way because Biden has been a firm opponent of building Jewish settlements for half a century.

The people whom liberal, pro-Israel Democrats saw as their natural allies were spending their weekends at protests and warning that Israel was on the cusp of becoming a fascist dictatorship. They continue to lobby foreign countries to stop the reform, as though the Likud and religious-Zionist voters were unruly natives who needed a Western colonial regime to civilize them.

That took the topic from a domestic issue that even most Israelis ignored for well over a decade while the wonks on the Right and heterodox voices on the Left talked among themselves, to something of great international concern on which even the president of the United States felt he must personally intervene.

At first, Biden tried to take the passive-aggressive route. He avoided Netanyahu and let Nides, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and various press secretaries in Washington relay the message, sometimes subtly and diplomatically and sometimes less so, that they think something is rotten in Jerusalem. Then, Biden himself said earlier this year that he was not going to invite Netanyahu to the White House.

To the credit of both sides, military and intelligence cooperation has not suffered, but at the political level, the lack of an invitation was a symbol of a chasm that started to seem like it had taken on Grand Canyon-like proportions.

Enter Herzog.

The Israeli president had a standing invitation from former speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to address a joint session of Congress celebrating 75 years of Israeli independence. Pelosi’s Republican replacement, Kevin McCarthy, renewed that invitation on his visit to Israel in May.

The Herzog visit was a perfect vehicle for what both presidents wanted to convey, that the aforementioned tensions, as heightened as they may have become, are still disagreements within a family, and that the US-Israel relationship remains strong.

Not only is Herzog not part of a Netanyahu government, but he is the person trying to bring about a compromise on the judicial reform issue, and is for a two-state solution, as well, putting plenty of distance between himself and Netanyahu’s coalition’s positions that Biden finds problematic.

Still, Netanyahu overshadowed the first part of the visit. He and Biden spoke on the phone the night before, with the Prime Minister’s Office saying Netanyahu had an invitation to meet with the president in the US, while the White House did not give clear answers on the matter. The headlines as Herzog took off from Ben-Gurion Airport were all about a potential Netanyahu-Biden meeting.

Then, right before Herzog entered the White House on Tuesday, came the headline that Netanyahu agreed to freeze settlement construction for the rest of the year. It was inaccurate; in fact, the Higher Planning Committee was not scheduled to meet again in 2023, and progress would continue on the homes authorized earlier this year.

When Herzog and Biden sat in the Oval Office, Biden read from note cards, mumbling incoherently. It was clear that he said some things about 75 years and the US and Israel having an unbreakable bond, but not much beyond that came through, and the video posted online looked bad for the president. Not that most of the American media cared much; the meeting got very little coverage.

Behind closed doors, the leaders met for more than an hour. Biden showed off the Medal of Honor that Herzog gave him, but they also talked about more serious matters.

Behind closed doors, the leaders met for more than an hour. Biden showed off the Medal of Honor that Herzog gave him, but they also talked about more serious matters.

The US president affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself from Palestinian terrorism, while speaking out against Jewish violence against Palestinians. They discussed the complexities of trying to bring about Israel-Saudi normalization. They talked about their concerns about the Iranian threat, with the White House mentioning “Iran’s growing defense partnership with Russia.”

And they discussed judicial reform. As the White House readout says, “they noted the strength of the US-Israel relationship, based on the bedrock of shared democratic values, and discussed the need for a consensus-based approach to the judicial reform package.”

Blinken similarly emphasized that the US-Israel relationship is “grounded not only in a commitment to Israel’s security, but also in democratic values. Bringing people together in affirmation of [democratic] values could not be more important.” Herzog was not the only person Biden met for over an hour that day. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times visited the Oval Office, as well.

What we know from Friedman’s column is that Biden said the following: “This is obviously an area about which Israelis have strong views, including in an enduring protest movement that is demonstrating the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, which must remain the core of our bilateral relationship. Finding consensus on controversial areas of policy means taking the time you need. For significant changes, that’s essential. So my recommendation to Israeli leaders is not to rush. I believe the best outcome is to continue to seek the broadest possible consensus here.”

Unlike last week’s column about Israel, in which he said the US must be reassessing its relationship with Israel, Friedman was clearer this time about what Biden told him and what was his commentary. Most of the Biden quote is a rewording of the readout from the Herzog meeting, with an important addition: When Biden said “not to rush” when he did, it was clear he was sending out a warning against proceeding with the vote scheduled for Sunday on abolishing reasonableness as grounds for judges to reverse decisions made by elected officials.

Now, if it wasn’t apparent before, we know what Biden thinks. He didn’t say there should not be any reform, he said it should be taken slowly and by consensus. He didn’t say he was rethinking US-Israel ties, but he does see the reform as relating to “the core of our bilateral relationship,” and one can easily reach the conclusion that tinkering with that core can have damaging results.

After Friedman published his column, at least one Israeli pundit declared Herzog’s visit a failure, because rather than doing an about-face and saying everything is fine, Biden went to the Times to speak out against judicial reform. Herzog should be judged by a realistic standard. A total reversal was never in the cards.

A more reasonable explanation is that Friedman is a voice many American liberals – especially older ones – respect on Israel and foreign affairs in general, so Biden chose him in advance and would have talked to him in conjunction with Herzog’s visit no matter how it went. Plus, there is no arguing against the halo effect of Herzog’s speech to a joint session of Congress.

Behind the scenes, when the Israeli press corps traveling with the president received advanced copies of the speech shortly before delivery, they groaned.

Behind the scenes, when the Israeli press corps traveling with the president received advanced copies of the speech shortly before delivery, they groaned.

The speech was full of all the usual clichés about the US-Israel relationship, and he didn’t seem to be saying anything new. That was also apparent after the speech, when The Jerusalem Post headline was “Vilifying Israel is antisemitism,” Israel Hayom led with “America is Israel’s best friend,” Times of Israel picked “Israel has a strong judiciary,” and Ynet wrote about Iran. With no clear news headline, each paper picked what it thought its readers would find interesting.

However, this is a case where the text of the speech did not convey what happened in the room when the president spoke.

Herzog may not have Netanyahu’s baritone or his reputation as a speaker, but this was an impressive oratorical showing. He spoke with gravitas, and all those well-trod phrases about the US and Israel being family and vital allies that made the cynical reporters roll their eyes suddenly became highly moving.

Herzog got the reactions he wanted from the US lawmakers and the Jewish Diaspora figures in the audience. That included 29 standing ovations, all bipartisan, though a noticeable group of Republican senators remained seated when Herzog mentioned the LGBT pride parade in Tel Aviv.

Sen. Jackie Rosen (D-Nevada) said soon after that the speech was “beautiful... inspiring and hopeful.” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said he was “heartened” by parts of the speech and found Herzog’s commitment to democracy “inspiring.”

Herzog couldn’t have planned how well other events in Congress dovetailed with his speech.

In response to Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) calling Israel racist, Republicans tabled a resolution reaffirming US support for Israel and saying it is democratic and not racist. Jewish Democrats condemned Jayapal’s statement, and much of the party supported the GOP resolution, even though the political game they were playing was very clear.

Amid hand-wringing about Jayapal’s comment and several lawmakers from the progressive “squad” boycotting the speech, there was a congressional show of force in favor of Israel, proving that bipartisan support is still strong. In his speech, Herzog made the case that the “squad” members’ positions are antisemitic, though he didn’t name names.

The events in Congress came together this past week just as the executive branch was on a collision course with Israel, showing that there is still plenty of hope for the US-Israel relationship.

The alliance is facing tough times right now, and the government cannot make light of that, as the US is an irreplaceable strategic ally for Israel.

But Herzog’s visit successfully demonstrated that these are, as he said, still loving disagreements within the family.