White House highlights relationship with Israel amid strain over judicial reform

Senior Biden administration officials briefed the American Jewish community on Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s recent visit to Washington, which they deemed ‘successful’

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 18: U.S. President Joe Biden (R) meets with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in the Oval Office at the White House on July 18, 2023 in Washington, DC. Herzog is on a multi-day visit to the United States where he is set to meet President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken and Congressional leaders as well as address a joint meeting of Congress to reaffirm the US-Israel relationship.

Hours after Israel’s Knesset passed controversial judicial reform legislation that provoked a response from President Joe Biden, senior White House officials, speaking in a virtual briefing to the American Jewish community, highlighted the close ties between Israel and the United States. 

“We don’t always agree on everything. But at the same time, we do talk about just about everything,” said Terry Wolff, the National Security Council’s senior director for Middle East and North Africa, who was discussing Biden’s recent meeting in Washington with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and his phone call last week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

After the Knesset voted 64-0 — the opposition boycotted the final vote — on Monday in favor of a bill that curtails the power of the country’s Supreme Court, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the vote “unfortunate” and said the U.S. will support Herzog’s efforts “to build a broader consensus through political dialogue.” 

“The president’s argument and his perspective has been that it’s really important that the sides get together, that they talk, and that discussion should not be over. And so that was really one of the themes he stressed all during last week’s meetings,” said Wolff.

Also on the table were the host of challenges that Washington and Jerusalem face together, Wolff added — Russia, China, growing the Abraham Accords, Ukraine and Iran. 

Samantha Sutton, who started last week as director for Israel and Palestinian affairs on the National Security Council, said Herzog’s visit to Washington was “successful.” 

“​​The breadth of issues that we cooperate with Israel on … I’ve been surprised, and pleasantly surprised,” said Sutton, who previously served as chief of staff to former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. Herzog’s visit, she noted, “just shows how much we cooperate with the Israelis.” 

During his visit, Herzog spoke to a joint session of Congress and also met with Vice President Kamala Harris, with the two leaders unveiling a joint climate initiative between the U.S. and Israel. 

“I think there’s a lot of opportunities there for collaboration,” said Ilan Goldenberg, special advisor for the Middle East and North Africa in the vice president’s office. “Water issues, technology issues, climate issues are all things that are very high on her agenda, and also are all high on the Israeli agenda.” 

The project “helps to cement everything we’re trying to do in the Middle East in terms of Israeli integration,” Goldenberg said, “and it’s also just great for the U.S.-Israel relationship and partnership.” He added that the joint investment in tackling climate change is also intended to benefit the Palestinians.

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