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Biden takes fire from both sides ahead of Herzog meeting

President Biden’s meeting Tuesday with Israeli President Isaac Herzog has already drawn fire from both sides of the political spectrum, as the president seeks to advance his policies in the Middle East despite strained relations with Jerusalem. 

The meeting between Biden and Herzog will help lay the groundwork for a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the fall. But it will also highlight Biden’s concerns about Israel’s future as a democracy and escalating violence with Palestinians.

Biden is outspoken in his criticism against extreme members of Netanyahu’s government and plans to push ahead with judicial reforms that have spurred mass protests in Israel. Herzog is viewed as a key mediator in managing tensions between Washington and Jerusalem.

“I am certain that behind-the-scenes Biden will be communicating to Herzog all of the different ways in which the administration is upset with the Israeli government and with the direction that Israel is taking,” said Michael Koplow, chief policy officer of Israel Policy Forum, a nonprofit that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. 

“I think that in this case, Herzog is more of a conduit to relay messages back to Netanyahu.” 

While the Israeli president is typically a figurehead, Herzog’s visit to Washington this week and speech to a joint session of Congress Wednesday will make him a target for criticism from lawmakers split over support for the U.S. and Israel relationship.

Progressive Democrats extremely critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and Netanyahu’s right-wing government are planning on boycotting the speech.

They are drawing pushback from centrist Democrats who support a strong U.S. and Israel relationship but want Biden to exercise a stronger hand in raising American concerns about Netanyahu’s government.

And Republicans are likely to use that split to promote themselves as the only party resolutely supporting Israel in the face of existential dangers ranging from terrorism to Iran’s nuclear threats. 

Even though Biden extended an invitation for Netanyahu to visit the U.S. during a phone call Monday, it came nearly seven months after the divisive Israeli leader was sworn into office — a perceived snub also likely to be seized upon by the GOP. 

“What this Biden administration has done, I think has been disgraceful, the way they treat a strong ally like Prime Minister Netanyahu has been disgraceful,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a leading GOP presidential contender, said in remarks Monday at the Christians United For Israel Conference. 

DeSantis further called for Biden to “butt out” of the split in Israel over Netanyahu’s judicial reforms package and spoke out against forcing “a quote, two-state solution” with the Palestinians. 

Mainstream Republicans are unlikely to abandon a U.S. policy supporting a two-state solution — that has an Israeli state living side by side with an independent Palestinian state — but they are less forceful on calling for Israel to make concessions to the Palestinian Authority. 

Biden has sought to walk a tightrope on U.S. policy toward Israel, balancing Republican calls for military support with demands from some Democrats to support the Palestinian people. 

Biden has held back on criticizing Israeli military operations targeting Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with those operations drawing intense criticism from progressive Democrats over Palestinian civilian casualties caught up in the fighting. 

But the president has spoken out against the Israeli government’s pursuit of judicial reforms that have drawn unprecedented opposition on the Israeli street. The U.S. has also criticized the Israeli government for greenlighting settlement expansion that they view as undercutting a potential, future Palestinian state. 

But these criticisms have not halted the administration’s pursuit of its overarching goal in the region: establishing ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The normalization of relations between the regional powers could have ripple effects across the Middle East, changing the balance of power to pressure Iran to rein in its aggressive behavior and giving Biden a major foreign policy achievement to tout on the 2024 campaign trail.  

“It’s clear that the administration is trying to get a breakthrough on Saudi Arabia and to try to get an interim deal … with Iran to avoid a deterioration, I think there’s no doubt that that is where their energy is,” said David Makovsky, Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

But he added that it’s unclear if a three-way agreement between the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia will have a Palestinian component. 

The Trump administration’s breakthrough Abraham Accords — establishing ties between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — came with Netanyahu’s concession to halt plans to annex territory in the West Bank that Palestinians want as part of any future state. 

“Israel definitely, definitely wants to see a breakthrough with Riyadh … so will that leave Netanyahu to make concessions? … that’s going to be a point of contention within the government,” he said.

Undermining Biden’s efforts to bridge divides between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority are far-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition, who promote settlement expansion and incite violence toward Palestinians. This includes Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir. 

“In terms of where we are in current U.S.-Israel relations, things obviously are tense and I think, in my view, the overwhelming majority of that should be laid at the feet of Netanyahu and his government,” the Israel Policy Forum’s Koplow said.

While Biden’s delayed invitation to Netanyahu was viewed as a major snub against the prime minister, some progressive Democrats call Herzog’s visit a distinction without a difference. 

“Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address comes on behalf of the most right wing government in Israel’s history, at a time when the government is openly promising to ‘crush’ Palestinian hopes of statehood—essentially putting a nail in the coffin of peace and a two-state solution,” tweeted Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).

Omar said “there is no way in hell” she would attend Herzog’s speech to Congress, joining a handful of progressive lawmakers who are boycotting his address. 

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) called Omar and others “a small splinter, fringe element” of the Democratic party that does not represent the overall strong support for the U.S. and Israel relationship. 

Still, the meeting between Biden and Herzog marks an “inflection point” in the future of the U.S. relationship with Israel, said , director of the Israel, The Palestinian Territories, and the Region program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. 

Biden’s pursuit of a two-state solution while Netanyahu and his government are openly hostile against it, in addition to a “deeply unpopular Palestinian leadership with its own people” that has effectively lost control of parts of the West Bank, is clouding the path forward for U.S. relations in the Middle East.

“There doesn’t seem to be a clear horizon right now of what comes next,” she said.

Source: The Hill

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