Biden Invites Netanyahu to United States, Eases Tensions

President Biden has invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to a meeting in the United States for the first time since Netanyahu returned to office in December, easing months of tension between the two leaders.

Mr Netanyahu's office said Mr Biden made the invitation in a “warm and lengthy” phone call late on Monday, ahead of a visit to Washington by Isaac Herzog, Israel's president, which until Monday night was widely seen as little for Mr Netanyahu.

The invitation overturns Mr Biden's decision in March to avoid meeting Mr Netanyahu “in the near future”.

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 decision to undermine the power of Israel's Supreme Court, build more Israeli homes in the occupied West Bank, and retroactively authorizing Israeli settlements built in the territory without government approval.

“President Biden reiterated in the context of the current debate in Israel about judicial reform the need for the widest possible consensus, and that shared democratic values ​​have always been and must remain a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship,” said John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council. .

The announcement came as a disappointment to the Israeli opposition which has called on the Biden administration to take a tougher stance against Netanyahu's judicial shake-up.

Mr. Netanyahu, who led the far-right government in Israel's history, is now expected to move forward with a controversial plan to limit the influence of his country's judiciary. The plan has sparked political unrest in Israel and drawn strong criticism from Biden, who says the US-Israel partnership must be rooted in a shared approach to democracy.

No date has been set for Netanyahu's visit, and it is unclear whether his invitation is to the White House or other parts of the country. But the invitation dispelled some of the tension that overshadowed Tuesday's visit by Mr Herzog, who will meet Mr Biden before delivering a joint address to Congress on Wednesday.

The bipartisan reception 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, vast quantities of weapons and defense technology, extensive diplomatic protection in the United Nations Security Council and important assistance in building new alliances with Arab countries.

Mr Herzog's invitation to Washington has angered some Democratic lawmakers, who say Mr Herzog is Mr Netanyahu's deputy and that they will boycott his speech to protest Israel's policies towards Palestine.

Despite the friction with Mr. Netanyahu, the Biden administration continues to oppose action against Israel at the UN over its treatment of Palestinians. The White House also invested a lot of effort in mediating the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, one of Netanyahu's top foreign policy goals.

But Mr. Biden and his administration continue to express growing frustration at Israel's increase in settlements in the West Bank. The US 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 Israel-Palestine conflict, even as a growing number of analysts conclude that a Palestinian state is no longer possible.

Washington also balked at comments by some of Netanyahu's more extreme cabinet colleagues, notably Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister, who said the state of Israel should “wipe out” a Palestinian city at the center of the recent violence. A State Department spokesman, Ned Price, called the comments “irresponsible, abhorrent and disgusting”.

For some Israel's critics of Netanyahu, the Biden administration's stance has not been firm enough, a perception reinforced by Monday's invitation. Anti-government protesters have gathered outside a branch of the US Embassy in Tel Aviv at least twice in recent days, some carrying banners pleading with Mr Biden to “Save us!”

But for Mr Netanyahu's supporters, Mr Biden's approach has gone too far. Amichai Chikli, Netanyahu's minister for diaspora affairs, said Biden's objections were “organized and prearranged” by the Israeli opposition. He also told Biden's ambassador, Thomas R. Nides, to “mind your own business” after US diplomats suggested that Netanyahu slow his judicial review.

On Monday, Yoav Kisch, the education minister, said in a radio interview before the invitation announcement: “I'm telling you in the clearest way: Of course Prime Minister Netanyahu has to travel” than Mr Herzog.

Mr Kisch added: “I love the president traveling, and I think it's important.” But, he said, “The bottom line is that the whole event with Biden is most likely being pushed and inflated by elements within the state of Israel,” referring to Mr. Netanyahu.

Relations between the United States and Israel have often gone through rocky times. In the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration clashed with David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, over his brief invasion of Egypt.

In the 1970s, the Ford administration cooled relations due to Israel's reluctance to withdraw from territory it seized from Egypt in 1967. In the 1990s, Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton clashed with successive Israeli prime ministers, including Netanyahu, over the construction settlement.

Two decades later, Netanyahu is at odds with President Barack Obama – especially after Netanyahu delivered a joint address to Congress without Obama's blessing.

But while most of the previous disagreements were confined to specific geopolitical differences – usually over Egypt, Iran or Palestine – the spat between Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu is different in that some involve clashes over values, said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington.

Mr. Biden has stated that Mr. Netanyahu's plans to curtail the judiciary will change the character of Israel's democracy and therefore undermine the perception that the US-Israeli alliance is rooted in a shared view of governance.

“The difference before was a matter of policy,” said Mr. Rabinovich. “This dispute concerns the essence of Israel.”

Netanyahu's top critics have predicted that Mr Herzog's visit will soften Mr Biden's approach to the prime minister.

Mr Herzog is a former political opponent of Mr Netanyahu, vying against him for the premiership in 2015. But he is also considered a bridge builder who has tried to find common ground this year between his government and its opponents. Some fear that Mr Herzog, in an attempt to defuse tensions, may persuade Mr Biden to water down his stance on Mr Netanyahu.

To illustrate the point, some demonstrators have faked an image of Netanyahu using 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 only one request for you, President Herzog,” wrote Mr. Caspit. “When you are in the White House, you are not there as Benjamin Netanyahu's lawyer. You are there as a lawyer for the State of Israel. Your job is not to ‘sell' Netanyahu to Biden.”

Meanwhile, Mr Herzog has been trying to depoliticize his trip. Over the weekend, his office issued a statement saying he would use the trip to highlight the Iranian threat, and would be accompanied by Leah Goldin, the mother of a soldier who was killed during the 2014 Gaza war and whose remains are being held. by militants in the Palestinian enclave.

“I look forward to representing the entire nation of Israel as President of the State of Israel,” Herzog said in the statement.

Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem and Michael D. Slide from Washington, DC Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel, and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem.