NATIONAL NEWS

Israel’s Herzog will meet with Biden as US concerns over settlements and judicial overhaul simmer

Jul 17, 2023, 9:10 PM | Updated: Jul 18, 2023, 3:02 am

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Tuesday is hosting Israel’s figurehead president Isaac Herzog at the White House, as they seek to sustain ties despite U.S. concerns over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial plans to overhaul his country’s judicial system and ongoing settlement construction in the West Bank.

Herzog’s visit comes a day after Biden spoke with Netanyahu by phone and invited him to meet in the U.S. this fall, although the president expressed reservations about several of the Netanyahu hard-right coalition’s policies. Netanyahu’s government is pushing forward with judicial changes that have authorized the construction of thousands of new housing units in the West Bank.

Netanyahu and his allies, a collection of ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties, say the plan is needed to rein in the powers of unelected judges. Opponents say the plan will destroy Israel’s fragile system of checks and balances and move the country toward authoritarian rule.

Herzog has appealed for a compromise that has thus far proven elusive. Many American Jewish groups and Democratic lawmakers have expressed concerns about the plan.

During his visit, Herzog is set to meet with Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and congressional leaders. On Wednesday he will become the second Israeli president, after his father Chaim Herzog, to address Congress. His speech will mark Israel’s celebration of its 75th year of independence.

Herzog’s visit comes weeks after Israeli forces carried out one of their most intensive operations in the West Bank in two decades, with a two-day air and ground offensive in Jenin, a militant stronghold in the occupied West Bank. Senior members of Netanyahu’s government have been pushing for increased construction and other measures to cement Israel’s control over the West Bank in response to a more than year-long wave of violence with the Palestinians.

U.S. officials have broadly supported Israel’s right to defend itself from militant attacks but have also urged restraint to minimize harm to civilians and have lobbied against additional settlements that would further diminish the chances of securing a two-state solution between Israel and Palestinians.

The Biden administration declined to say whether Biden would host Netanyahu at the White House — as the Israeli leader has hoped — or in New York on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly.

White House visits are typically standard protocol for Israeli prime ministers, and the delay in Netanyahu receiving one has become an issue in Israel, with opponents citing it as a reflection of deteriorating relations with the U.S.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Biden again on Monday expressed concern to Netanyahu over the judicial plan — as he did when they last spoke earlier this year — and urged the “broadest possible consensus” over the legislation that has been pushed by Netanyahu and his hard-line coalition.

Kirby said during the call Biden also expressed his “ironclad, unwavering commitment” to Israel’s security and that the two leaders discussed Iran’s nuclear program and regional security issues. Biden also “expressed concern” over Israel’s continued settlement growth in the West Bank and urged Israel to take steps to preserve the viability of a two-state solution with Palestinians.

Biden, Kirby said, also welcomed steps by the Palestinian Authority to reassert security control in Jenin and other areas of the West Bank and moves by Israel and Palestinians to move toward another round of direct talks.

Progressive lawmakers, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush and Ilhan Omar have pledged to boycott Herzog’s address in protest of Israel’s policies.

Herzog’s visit comes days after Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the influential 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, sparked outrage for calling Israel a “racist state,” including criticism from House Democratic leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries. Jayapal later said she was criticizing Israel’s government, not its existence as a country.

Kirby said Biden was glad she apologized. “We think an apology was the right thing to do,” he told reporters Monday.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim all three territories for a future independent state.

Israel has annexed east Jerusalem and claims it as part of its capital — a claim that is not internationally recognized. It says the West Bank is disputed territory whose fate should be determined through negotiations, while Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Two years later, the Hamas militant group overran the territory.

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