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President Herzog Comes to Washington
How to get the most out of the Israeli president's trip to DC.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog arrives this week for a two-day state visit around the same time of the release of the latest Mission: Impossible movie sequel. The feats Herzog and U.S. President Joe Biden will have to perform to make progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace during this trip are on the order of what Tom Cruise’s superspy character Ethan Hunt performs in the popular movie series. But the two leaders should pick up the challenge. Realities on the ground demand it, and broad regional shifts improve prospects for progress.
The matter that casts the biggest shadow on this visit, however, is the ongoing crisis in Israel’s democracy, now in its seventh month. While Herzog is in Washington, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the pro-democracy movement will face off over the latest attempt to push through a judicial reform package designed to undermine Israel’s system of checks and balances before the Knesset session draws to a close at the end of the month. The stakes could not be higher for Israel right now.
Meanwhile, there’s also no shortage of other important issues affecting both the U.S.-Israel bilateral relationship and Israel’s ties with its neighbors: recurring violence between Israelis and Palestinians, steps by Israel’s extreme right-wing government to expand settlements in the West Bank, a slowdown in Israel-Arab relations, and big questions looming about how to address Iran’s nuclear program and its destabilizing actions in the Middle East.
Herzog’s visit can be an easy win for both sides. He will be warmly embraced by President Biden and will receive standing ovations when addressing Congress. The Israeli president is the “good cop” in the plot. His invitation to Washington while Prime Minister Netanyahu has already been waiting months for such a visit clearly indicates that. Herzog is the sort of Israeli leader the U.S. is comfortable with. He reflects those shared values that are the basis for the Israel-U.S. special relationship—a liberal democrat who supports the two-state solution, advances regional cooperation, and remains committed to an inclusive and positive societal vision.
That’s the exact opposite of what Netanyahu stands for today. Every applause break Herzog gets in D.C. could actually be a "boo in disguise" against Netanyahu. Every statement made during the visit by a U.S. official cherishing the importance of democracy will be cheered by liberal Israelis. Gatherings of support already took place last week in front of the U.S. embassy in Israel to congratulate Biden’s strong words against Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul and request further deeds.
Herzog’s invitation to Washington was initially extended by former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and reissued by current Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy—an important sign of enduring bipartisan unity vis-à-vis bilateral relations. This visit is also closely coordinated with the Biden administration, a sharp contrast to 2015 when Netanyahu’s arrival in D.C. did damage by undercutting trust and confidence. More than a year before the next U.S. presidential elections, both sides on Capitol Hill seem eager to avoid turning U.S.-Israel ties into a partisan wedge issue. The outlier is, unsurprisingly, former President Donald Trump, who has been criticizing Biden for not inviting Netanyahu.
Beyond domestic politics and democracy, there is one issue Herzog should also address at the White House if he wants to see this visit turn into a memorable mid-summer blockbuster: the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian question. The lack of a resolution to this issue has a direct impact on defining Israel’s future, and the prospects for progress on this front at first glance seem bleak. Though the instincts of both leaders might be to brush the topic aside or issue only some general remarks recommitting to their traditional positions, now is the time for something more.
The current Israeli government continues to actively diminish prospects for a two-state solution, announcing more settlement expansions in the West Bank just last month. At the same time, growing violence and increased threats to stability and order in the West Bank and Jerusalem by Palestinian and Israeli extremists alike undercuts the already weak legitimacy of a Palestinian Authority that already suffers from limited powers and a severely constrained capacity to respond to the basic needs of its own people.
Even though the pathway forward on the Israeli-Palestinian front is narrow and rocky, Herzog and Biden should look for ways to widen it and construct a new road to a future two-state solution. While resuming bilateral negotiations isn’t relevant or even possible at the moment, some progress could be made by linking the Israeli-Palestinian issue to broader relations between Israel and the Arab world.
During the past few years, the Abraham Accords have normalized and opened new relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. In recent months, moreover, hope has sprung that a similar possible deal could be struck between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the largest economy in the Middle East. Biden recently expanded his team working to advance Israeli-Arab normalization, which might also be intended to facilitate Israel-Saudi relations. In parallel, the Saudis have shown more willingness than before to welcome Israelis at international events hosted by the Kingdom, and Netanyahu has publicly given high priority to establishing formal ties with Riyadh.
Yet all this optimism may prove misplaced if the diplomatic process ignores the major factor that can enable a leap forward — progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For years, the Saudis have conditioned normalization with Israel on a two-state solution, a requirement spelled out in the Saudi-backed Arab Peace Initiative. While Riyadh might ultimately be willing to normalize for less, the Palestinian issue still remains crucial to this process.
To encourage progress on both fronts, the U.S. should link its discussions on normalization with Saudi Arabia to Washington’s approach on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The U.S. should once again seek to resolve, not just manage, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and enhance its political dialogue with the Palestinian leadership. Such a process could lead to an updated version of the Arab Peace Initiative to which a more moderate Israeli government would be able to positively respond. To be clear, the current Israeli government, the most right-wing in the country’s history, will be unable to fulfill the potential of the historic shifts towards greater regional normalization and integration due in large part to its extreme stance on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
This avenue is more propitious than the idea of trying to move forward on regional normalization without substantial progress on the Palestinian front. It is also a better alternative to advocacy campaigns to call Israel an “apartheid” state and produce a illusory “one-state solution” that has no chance of materializing.
Jordan, with which Israel has a peace treaty since 1994, is also highly committed to the two-state solution, has a large Palestinian population, and played a vital role in the drafting of the original Arab Peace Initiative. Amman has played an effective role in regional diplomacy in previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and continues to have much to offer. For example, Jordan can play a leading role in advancing a new multilateral framework to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace within a regional context and succeed the defunct Quartet. Jordan can bring on board other partners, like Egypt, Germany, and France (with which it established the “Munich Group” that calls for a two-state solution), and encourage active participation of pro-peace Israelis and Palestinians.
In his two years in office, Herzog has already proven his capacity to impact for the better Israel’s regional ties. Biden should take note of that and lay the foundations with his Israeli counterpart for future progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace—not as a way to legitimize Netanyahu and his policies, but rather to support a process of positive political change in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Nimrod Goren is the Senior Fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, the President and Founder of Mitvim—The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and Co-Founder of Diplomeds—The Council for Mediterranean Diplomacy.