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Israeli President’s White House Visit Highlights Biden’s Anger at Netanyahu

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Isaac Herzog, the president of Israel, will meet President Biden on Tuesday before giving a joint address to Congress a day later. His visit highlights the endurance of Israel-U.S. ties but also underscores tensions between Mr. Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has not received an invitation to the White House since taking power again in Israel last year.

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.

But Mr. Herzog’s presence will also be a reminder of the absence of Mr. Netanyahu. Mr. Biden has pointedly refused to reward Mr. Netanyahu with an invitation to the White House since he returned to office in December at the helm of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

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.

The timing of Mr. Herzog’s visit comes just days before Mr. Netanyahu 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 particular criticism from Mr. Biden, who has said that the U.S.-Israel partnership must be rooted in a shared approach to democracy.

Mr. Biden also recently described Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition as “one of the most extremist” since the 1970s, and said he would not welcome Mr. Netanyahu to Washington “in the near term.”

Still, the Biden administration denied last week that it was discussing a formal reassessment of its relationship with Israel, and its diplomats continue 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 with Mr. Netanyahu, voicing particular opposition to his 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.

U.S. officials view Israeli settlement in the West Bank 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. 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 has 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: “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.”

Though Mr. Netanyahu’s critics are mostly happy at Mr. Biden’s decision to snub him, some are still anxious about Mr. Herzog’s visit.

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 fear that Mr. Herzog, in a bid to defuse tensions, could persuade Mr. Biden to invite Mr. Netanyahu to the White House later in the year.

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.

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel, and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem.

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