Middle East

Biden Invites Netanyahu to United States, Easing Tensions

President Biden on Monday 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 about the direction of Israel’s government.

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. Until Monday, that visit had been widely seen as a slight to Mr. Netanyahu.

The invitation to the prime minister reversed Mr. Biden’s decision in March to avoid meeting Mr. Netanyahu “in the near term.” But White House officials said the prospect of a face-to-face meeting should not be interpreted as Mr. Biden’s abandoning his objections to some of the Israeli leader’s hard-line positions.

Mr. Biden 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, expand Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and retroactively authorize settlements built in the territory without government approval.

“You shouldn’t take away from the fact that they had a conversation today and that they will meet again that we have less concerns over these judicial reforms or less concerns over some of the extremist activities and behavior by some members of the Netanyahu cabinet,” John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters at the White House.

“Those concerns are still valid,” he said.

White House officials declined to address directly what led the president to issue the invitation now, in the absence of any apparent concessions from Mr. Netanyahu. But Mr. Biden — who had pointedly delayed the invitation for months — appeared to have judged that the need to restore a greater sense of normalcy to the United States’ most critical alliance in the Middle East outweighed any benefits of continuing to keep Mr. Netanyahu at a distance.

Mr. Biden’s outreach came just ahead of the visit by Mr. Herzog, which will include a meeting with Mr. Biden at the White House on Tuesday and an address to Congress by the Israeli president on Wednesday.

Mr. Herzog’s trip has already highlighted how American policy toward Israel has increasingly become a flashpoint in domestic politics, with Republicans embracing Mr. Netanyahu and divisions flaring among Democrats. Several liberal lawmakers have said they will boycott Mr. Herzog’s speech to protest Israel’s actions toward Palestinians.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington and the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called Israel “a racist state” over the weekend, drawing condemnation from Democratic leaders and others before later saying that she does not believe “the idea of Israel as a nation is racist.”

White House officials declined to say whether Mr. Netanyahu would be invited to the White House, which would be the usual practice for a close ally, or only to meet with Mr. Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, which meets later in the fall. No date was set for the visit.

Mr. Kirby said that the president believes it is important to meet with Mr. Netanyahu despite ongoing concerns about the debate inside Israel over changes to the country’s judicial system.

“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 U.S.-Israel relationship,” Mr. Kirby said.

The announcement of an invitation for a meeting between the two leaders came as a disappointment to Israel’s opposition parties, 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 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.

The visit to the White House and Capitol Hill by Mr. Herzog, whose position is largely ceremonial, reflects Israel’s enduring role as a key strategic and military ally for the United States in the Middle East. The United States provides Israel with nearly $3.9 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.

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 United States 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 that a Palestinian town at the center of recent violence should be “erased” by Israel. Ned Price, then a spokesman for the State Department, 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 branch offices 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,” Mr. Rabinovich said. “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. Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel, and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem.


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