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Biden, Caught in Political Cross Currents, Navigates U.S.-Israel Relationship

When Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, called Israel a “racist state” on Saturday, White House officials swiftly proclaimed America’s “ironclad” relationship with its Middle Eastern ally and made clear that President Biden objected to her remarks.

But when Mr. Biden appeared on CNN for an interview several days earlier, he declared some members of the current Israeli government to be “the most extremist” he has seen in nearly four decades, a striking assessment of that same ally.

Since taking office, Mr. Biden has struggled to navigate through one of the most complicated periods of diplomatic tension between the United States and Israel, often by explicitly distancing himself from voices at the extremes. His effort has become even more difficult in recent days as he finds himself in the crosscurrents from Republicans, members of his own party and rising unrest in Israel.

On Tuesday, Mr. Biden sought to showcase the ties that still bind the two governments by hosting Isaac Herzog, who serves as Israel’s mostly ceremonial president, for a meeting in the Oval Office.

“Welcome back — pleasure to have you here,” Mr. Biden told Mr. Herzog, noting that Israel was celebrating 75 years of existence. He gave Mr. Herzog a fist bump and called the relationship between the United States and Israel “simply unbreakable.”

No one missed that Mr. Biden did not offer the same warm embrace to Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s hard-line prime minister, who returned to power in December. In a striking example of the president’s diplomatic balancing act, Mr. Biden ended months of stiff-arming Mr. Netanyahu on Monday and invited him for a face-to-face meeting in the United States sometime before the end of the year.

But even that gesture was designed to forge a kind of middle ground for Mr. Biden to occupy: His aides pointedly declined to say whether the prime minister would be hosted at the White House, or at another less politically desirable location for Mr. Netanyahu.

Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul-general in New York, said Mr. Biden found an effective way to quiet criticism from Republicans that he had not yet invited Mr. Netanyahu while still snubbing him.

“You can quell this by simply making a call, giving him a piece of your mind on the constitutional issue and the Palestinian issue, listening to his whatever complaints about Iran policy, and then not even committing to a visit,” Mr. Pinkas said. “You know, if he raises the issue of visit, you’ll say, ‘Yeah, we’ll meet in the future.’ It could be in the General Assembly in New York in September, it could be who knows when and where.’”

At the same time, the American president is wary of the deep animosity toward Israel’s government from some members of his own party, which threatens to undermine the decades long military and strategic alliance in a vital and increasingly unstable part of the world.

“Biden simply can’t afford to have the entire Democratic Party painted with the brash, open hostility and being perceived as a fundamental adversary of Israel,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He added that Mr. Biden is unwilling to follow the model of former President Donald J. Trump, who supported Mr. Netanyahu without reservation until a falling-out between the two leaders late in his presidency.

“He knows it’s bad for U.S. interests,” Mr. Miller said of Mr. Biden moving his administration too close to the prime minister. “He also knows it’s bad for his credibility.”

Mr. Biden is not the first president to struggle to manage the Israel relationship. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton both clashed with Israeli leaders, and former President Barack Obama engaged in years of frosty encounters with Mr. Netanyahu as the two men clashed over settlements and Iran policy.

But few presidents have been forced to deal with so much incoming at the same time.

The comments by Ms. Jayapal, for which she later apologized and which prompted a House resolution in support of Israel, underscored the political pressure on Mr. Biden from a small contingent of his party to hold Israel accountable for what those members claim are crimes against Palestinians.

Yet Republicans — including Mr. Trump, the front-runner to be his party’s presidential nominee in 2024 — have ratcheted up their criticism of Mr. Biden and the administration for not supporting Israel and Mr. Netanyahu. Mr. Biden’s refusal to invite Mr. Netanyahu to the United States was a key talking point for Mr. Biden’s adversaries.

In Israel, the traditional disagreements over settlements and Iran have been joined by protests over Mr. Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judiciary system. The fierce debate has drawn Mr. Biden into domestic dispute over the fundamental questions of democratic values and ideals that have been at the center of the alliance between the two countries for decades.

The delicate maneuvers have played out against the backdrop of a shifting focus for Mr. Biden’s foreign policy team.

The war in Ukraine has become Mr. Biden’s top national security focus in the past 18 months as he seeks to rally Europe and other countries to oppose Russia’s brutal invasion of his neighbor. His administration has also refocused attention on the military and economic threat to the United States and its allies from China.

“The focal point of American diplomacy has really changed with the war in Ukraine,” said Dore Gold, a former Israeli permanent representative to the United Nations and a former adviser to Mr. Netanyahu.

“I think that’s where the president is focused: on putting together a coalition” to support Ukraine and Eastern Europe “and to reform NATO for the challenges that America is facing now,” Mr. Gold said.

Israel remains a central U.S. ally in the Middle East and the recipient of billions of dollars in aid each year. In Tuesday’s visit by Mr. Herzog, White House officials said that Mr. Biden emphasized areas of cooperation, including progress toward normalization of relations with other Middle Eastern countries and diplomatic efforts with the Palestinians.

Some supporters in the United States consider Mr. Herzog, who ran against Mr. Netanyahu almost a decade ago, to be a bridge builder whose efforts to find a middle ground in Israel’s fraught political climate are a welcome change from some of the more extremist elements of the country’s government.

But even before Tuesday, his visit was generating controversy. Several liberal lawmakers said they would boycott Mr. Herzog’s planned speech to Congress on Wednesday to protest Mr. Netanyahu’s government. Nine Democrats voted on Tuesday against a House resolution stating that Israel is not an apartheid state.

White House officials had previously said that Mr. Biden planned to raise his concerns about the Israeli government’s expansion of settlements, which his administration considers an impediment to an eventual two-state solution, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Officials had said Mr. Biden would also express to Mr. Herzog his discomfort with Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to make changes to the judicial system that critics say would undermine the power of Israel’s Supreme Court.

In brief comments to reporters after the meeting, Mr. Herzog confirmed that the two leaders discussed that broad range of issues. Mr. Herzog acknowledged what he called “internal issues in Israel,” referring to Mr. Netanyahu’s proposed judicial changes.

“I reiterated my commitment, as I said before: Israeli democracy is strong and resilient,” Mr. Herzog said. “And we should definitely see the current debate in Israel — with all its facets — as a tribute to the strengths of Israeli democracy.”

Michael D. Shear reported from Washington, and Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem.


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