Biden Invites Netanyahu to U.S., Easing Tensions
President Isaac Herzog will meet with President Biden this week and address Congress. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he also got a presidential invitation.
President Biden has invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to a meeting in the United States for the first time since Mr. Netanyahu re-entered office in December, easing months of tensions between the two leaders.
Mr. Netanyahu’s office said that Mr. Biden made the invitation in a “warm and long” phone call on Monday evening, on the eve of a visit to Washington by Isaac Herzog, the Israeli president, that had until Monday night been widely seen as a slight to Mr. Netanyahu.
The invitation reversed Mr. Biden’s decision in March to avoid meeting Mr. Netanyahu “in the near term.”
Mr. Biden had recently described Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition as “one of the most extremist” since the 1970s, and voiced particular opposition to Mr. Netanyahu’s decisions to undermine the power of Israel’s Supreme Court, build more Israeli homes in the occupied West Bank, and retroactively authorize Israeli settlements built in the territory without government approval.
“President Biden reiterated in the context of the current debate in Israel about judicial reform the need for the broadest possible consensus, and that shared democratic values have always been and must remain a hallmark of the US Israel relationship,” said John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
The announcement came as a disappointment to Israel’s opposition who had called on the Biden administration to take an even stronger stance against Mr. Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul.
Mr. Netanyahu, who leads the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, is now expected to move forward with a contentious plan to limit the influence of his country’s judiciary. That plan has set off political unrest in Israel and drawn strong criticism from Mr. Biden, who has said that the U.S.-Israel partnership must be rooted in a shared approach to democracy.
No date has yet been set for Mr. Netanyahu’s visit, and it was unclear whether his invitation was to the White House or another part of the country. But the invitation removes some of the tension that had overshadowed Tuesday’s visit by Mr. Herzog, who will meet Mr. Biden before giving a joint address to Congress on Wednesday.
The bipartisan welcome for Mr. Herzog, whose position is largely ceremonial, reflects how the United States government sees Israel as a key strategic and military ally in the Middle East. The United States provides Israel with nearly $3.8 billion in annual aid, large amounts of weapons and defense technology, extensive diplomatic cover at the United Nations Security Council and crucial assistance in building new alliances with Arab countries.
Mr. Herzog’s invitation to Washington has angered some Democratic lawmakers, who say that Mr. Herzog is a proxy for Mr. Netanyahu and that they will boycott his address to protest Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.
Despite the friction with Mr. Netanyahu, the Biden administration has continued to ward off measures against Israel at the United Nations over its treatment of the Palestinians. The White House is also investing considerable effort in mediating a normalization of diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, one of Mr. Netanyahu’s top foreign policy goals.
But Mr. Biden and his administration have nevertheless expressed growing frustration at increased Israeli settlement in the West Bank. The U.S. sees that as a major obstacle to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel — an outcome that remains the Biden administration’s preferred solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as a growing number of analysts conclude that Palestinian statehood is no longer possible.
Washington has also balked at comments by some of Mr. Netanyahu’s more extreme cabinet colleagues, in particular Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister, who said the Israeli state should “erase” a Palestinian town at the center of recent violence. A spokesman for the State Department, Ned Price, called those comments “irresponsible, disgusting and repugnant.”
To some Israeli critics of Mr. Netanyahu, the Biden administration’s stance has not been strong enough, a perception strengthened by the invitation on Monday. Anti-government protesters have gathered outside U.S. Embassy branches in Tel Aviv at least twice in recent days, some of them carrying banners imploring Mr. Biden to “Save us!”
But to Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters, Mr. Biden’s approach had already been too forceful. Amichai Chikli, Mr. Netanyahu’s minister for diaspora affairs, said Mr. Biden’s objections were “prearranged and orchestrated” by the Israeli opposition. He also told Mr. Biden’s ambassador, Thomas R. Nides, to “mind your own business” after the U.S. diplomat suggested that Mr. Netanyahu slow down his judicial overhaul.
On Monday, Yoav Kisch, the education minister, said in a radio interview before the announcement of the invitation: “I tell you in the clearest way: Of course it would have been appropriate for Prime Minister Netanyahu to travel” instead of Mr. Herzog.
Mr. Kisch added: “I am happy the president is traveling, and I think this is important.” But, he said, “The bottom line is that this entire event with Biden is most likely being fueled and inflated by elements inside the state of Israel,” a reference to Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents.
Relations between the United States and Israel have often gone through fraught periods. In the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration clashed with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, over its brief invasion of Egypt.
In the 1970s, the Ford administration cooled ties over Israel’s reluctance to withdraw from territory it captured from Egypt in 1967. In the 1990s, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton clashed with successive Israeli prime ministers, including Mr. Netanyahu, over settlement construction.
Two decades later, Mr. Netanyahu fell out with President Barack Obama — particularly after Mr. Netanyahu gave his own joint address to Congress without Mr. Obama’s blessing.
But while most of those earlier disagreements were limited to specific geopolitical differences — usually over Egypt, Iran, or the Palestinians — the spat between Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu is different because it partly involves a dispute over values, said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington.
Mr. Biden has suggested that Mr. Netanyahu’s plans to limit the judiciary would change the character of Israel’s democracy and therefore undermine perceptions that the U.S.-Israel alliance is rooted in a shared outlook on governance.
“Previous differences were over policy,” said Mr. Rabinovich. “This dispute is over the very essence of Israel.”
Key critics of Mr. Netanyahu had already predicted that Mr. Herzog’s visit would soften Mr. Biden’s approach to the prime minister.
Mr. Herzog is a former political opponent of Mr. Netanyahu, competing against him for the premiership in 2015. But he is also considered a bridge-builder who has attempted to find common ground this year between the government and its opponents. Some feared that Mr. Herzog, in a bid to defuse tensions, could persuade Mr. Biden to thaw his stance on Mr. Netanyahu.
To illustrate that point, some demonstrators have held doctored images of Mr. Netanyahu using Mr. Herzog’s face as a mask.
Ben Caspit, a biographer and critic of Mr. Netanyahu, issued a direct warning to Mr. Herzog in a newspaper column on Monday. “I have just one request for you, President Herzog,” Mr. Caspit wrote. “When you’re at the White House, you aren’t there as Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyer. You’re there as the State of Israel’s lawyer. Your job isn’t to ‘sell’ Netanyahu to Biden.”
For his part, Mr. Herzog has tried to depoliticize his trip. Over the weekend, his office released a statement that said he would use the trip to highlight the threat of Iran, and would be accompanied by Leah Goldin, the mother of a soldier who was killed during the Gaza war of 2014 and whose remains are held by militants in the Palestinian enclave.
“I am very much looking forward to representing the entire nation of Israel as President of the State of Israel,” Mr. Herzog said in the statement.
Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem and Michael D. Shear from Washington, D.C. Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel, and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem.