In meeting with Israel’s Herzog, Biden cites ‘hard work’ ahead for peace

  • Ties strained over settlements, judicial overhaul
  • Some Democrats in Congress to skip Wednesday speech

WASHINGTON, July 18 (Reuters) – (This July 18 story has been corrected to say Tlaib is the first Palestinian American woman in Congress in paragraph 14)

President Joe Biden and Israeli President Isaac Herzog stressed their countries’ close ties on Tuesday at a White House meeting despite U.S. tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government over Jewish settlements and civil rights.

Citing issues including Netanyahu’s human rights record, a handful of Democratic lawmakers said they would stay away when Herzog addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday, the last day of a two-day visit.

At an Oval Office meeting, Biden told Herzog that America’s commitment to Israel was firm and ironclad. Biden said the two countries had been working together to bring more stability and integration to the Middle East. “A lot of hard work. We’ve got a lot more to do, but there’s progress,” he said.

As head of state, Herzog plays a largely ceremonial role in his country’s politics. He praised Biden as “a huge friend” of Israel.

“There are some enemies of ours that sometimes mistake the fact that we may have some differences as impacting our unbreakable bond,” Herzog said.

Ties have been strained over Israeli settlement expansion on the occupied West Bank as well as a judicial overhaul pursued by Netanyahu’s right-wing government and assailed by anti-government protesters in Israel.

The White House said Biden and Herzog had consulted on issues including “enhanced coordination” to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and Iran’s defense partnership with Russia. It said Biden reiterated his commitment to maintaining a path toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stressing the need for additional measures to improve the security and economic situation in the West Bank.

Herzog also met Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

Biden and Herzog last met at the White House in October. Netanyahu returned to power in December.

On Monday, Biden invited Netanyahu to the United States for an official visit later this year.

Biden had held off extending the invitation out of concern over Jewish settlements and a planned overhaul that critics say would strip Israel’s highest court of much of its power and that has driven protests in Israel for months, including on Tuesday.

SPEECH BOYCOTTS

In Congress, Representative Ilhan Omar said on Twitter “there is no way in hell” she would be at Wednesday’s speech.

“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,” Omar said.

Representative Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian American woman in Congress, said on Twitter she would be boycotting Herzog’s address. “I urged all Members of Congress who stand for human rights for all to join me,” she said, with a picture of herself holding a “Boycott Apartheid” sign on the Capitol steps.

Representative Jamaal Bowman said he too would be a no-show in a statement citing “concern that there is no sense of urgency about ensuring the safety and security of all Israelis and Palestinians in the region and finally achieving a two-state solution.”

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also did not plan to attend. An aide said she shared many of her colleagues’ concerns.

It is not unusual for members of Congress to miss foreign leaders’ addresses. Several skipped Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech to Congress in June, citing issues including rights concerns.

More than 50 Democrats stayed away from a 2015 speech to Congress by Netanyahu that was seen as an embrace of congressional Republicans and snub of then-Democratic President Barack Obama’s Iran policy. Biden, who was vice president and thus president of the Senate, also did not attend.

Republican House of Representatives leaders scheduled a vote expressing support for the state of Israel. They criticized the Democrats who planned to skip the speech and a comment from Representative Pramila Jayapal, who leads a large group of progressives in Congress, that Israel is a racist state.

Jayapal apologized on Sunday.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Steve Holland; additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan and David Morgan; editing by Don Durfee and Howard Goller

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Patricia Zengerle has reported from more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China. An award-winning Washington-based national security and foreign policy reporter who also has worked as an editor, Patricia has appeared on NPR, C-Span and other programs, spoken at the National Press Club and attended the Hoover Institution Media Roundtable. She is a recipient of the Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence.

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