President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Washington this week will be colored by the traditional pro-Israel fanfare emblematic of American-Israeli relations. The Israeli president is widely respected among Democrats and Republicans alike, with longstanding, strong ties to American officials and the American Jewish community. His calls for compromise regarding the judicial makeover will be especially applauded.
But the Israeli president represents a different Israel from the far-right government that now sits in Jerusalem. Amid the affirmations of US-Israel ties, Herzog’s visit will be unable to mask the new challenge before the US in its ties with the Jewish state. Nor should it.
When President Herzog last visited Washington late last October, the tone of his visit was more or less business as usual. Exhortations about the enduring alliance between the US and Israel. Condemnations of anti-Israel bias in international forums. But when Herzog returned to Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu scored a major victory in the November Knesset elections.
With his government seated in the new year, the prime minister set about aggressively working to upend Israel’s independent judiciary – a cornerstone of its democracy – and aggravating the situation in the West Bank by authorizing hitherto illegal settlements while extremist ministers fanned the flames of settler terrorism. A lot can change in a relatively short span of time.
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When Herzog returns to the United States next week, this will be the backdrop: On Tuesday, a bill stripping the Supreme Court of its ability to review the reasonableness of government officials’ actions passed its first reading in the Knesset, which, if it ultimately becomes law, will remove a major check against corruption and arbitrary behavior.
In June, the Israeli government announced plans to build 5,700 new settlement homes in the West Bank, just days after handing Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich – the radical nationalist who cheered on the February settler rampage in the Palestinian town of Huwara – near-total control in the settlement-planning process. That same month, settlers rampaged through several Palestinian towns. These are only some of the most recent steps Israel has taken down a dangerous and illiberal path.
WHEN PRESIDENT Joe Biden and Herzog last met, the American president spoke of an “ironclad commitment” to Israel, based on “our principles, our ideas, our values.” It would be a grave mistake to employ that same rhetoric next week without invoking the serious crisis of Israeli democracy – illustrated in both the battle over the judiciary and the breakdown in the West Bank.
The principles, ideas, and values President Biden appealed to back in October – the ideals of a secure, Jewish, and democratic state – are now in the crosshairs. To support the strength of US-Israel relations, Biden must reinforce to Herzog – and in doing so, to the watching Israeli public – that those values cannot be shared by just one party in the relationship.
There is nothing “pro-Israel” about letting Israel walk off an authoritarian cliff. Biden should praise President Herzog as a much-needed voice of reason in Israel; one that embodies the spirit of enduring US-Israel relations that the United States seeks to nurture and strengthen.
But Biden must also convey that the US does not see things as proceeding normally. He should not back down from his recent remarks of concern about the extreme agenda being pursued by the Israeli government. He must convey that Israel’s handling of the West Bank, and rush to remake the judiciary, are undermining US interests and values, rocking the “unshakable bond” between the US and Israel that he has long championed.
Most importantly, he should reaffirm his decision not to host Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House, so long as he enables attacks on the judiciary and empowers the settler agenda in the West Bank.
For its part, the American Jewish community should do the same: embrace Herzog and the values he represents, while making clear the vast majority in our community support the US in pushing back against the current Israeli government’s agenda that is so clearly harming to US interests, and to the US-Israel relationship.
As things stand now, Biden has a thankless job in handling US-Israel relations. Herzog presents a friendly face on the Israeli side. It is understandable, under the circumstances, why both would want to set difficult questions aside in favor of the usual diplomatic niceties involved in American-Israeli exchanges. But aspirational rhetoric cannot, and should not obfuscate the genuine threat to US-Israel relations this Israeli government has accelerated. Today’s context demands a blunt readout on the situation. It’s the most pro-Israel thing to do.
David Halperin is CEO and David Sherman is board chair of Israel Policy Forum.