Biden Hosts Israeli President As Two-State Solution Slips Further Away

President Biden will host Israel's president at the White House this week amid growing tension over the hard-right Israeli government's proposed judicial system reforms and plans to expand settlements in the West Bank.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog's visit Tuesday to Washington comes at a fraught moment in the relationship between the United States and Israel, nations with a longtime security alliance that has been strained in recent months by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new conservative governing coalition.

Herzog will meet with Biden and then address a joint session of Congress later Tuesday to mark the 75th anniversary of Israel's independence.

Herzog, Biden
Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks during a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House on October 26, 2022 in Washington, DC. Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images

But the fanfare surrounding the appearance by Herzog—who serves in a largely symbolic role—will be clouded by the recent strife in Israel, as well as concern among democracy advocates that the nation's sharp rightward shift since Netanyahu returned to power last year has shut the door for now on a two-state solution that would grant Palestinians a homeland.

"It's a really pivotal moment in Israel's history," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J-Street, a liberal advocacy group. "The proposals that [Netanyahu's] government are pursuing would move Israel away from the liberal democratic camp. That's why there's protesters in the streets."

Israel has been engulfed by protests for months over a planned overhaul of the judicial system that would weaken the power and independence of the country's Supreme Court. Netanyahu's nationalist-religious ruling coalition proposed the changes after taking power earlier this year.

Israeli lawmakers this week are voting on the first of several bills overhauling the judiciary. The legislation is opposed by the Biden administration and some members of Congress.

"If carried out to their fullest extent, these changes could fundamentally alter the democratic character of the State of Israel," Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York and other congressional lawmakers wrote in a letter to Israeli leaders in March.

The judicial reform debate also comes at a time of increased violence in the West Bank.

Four Israelis were killed in a June 20 attack in the West Bank settlement of Eli that drew condemnation from Israel and the Biden administration. The Palestinian militant movement Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, and said it was a response to an Israeli raid in the West Bank city of Jenin the previous day that killed six Palestinians.

The violence has played out as Netanyahu's government plans an expansion of settlements in the West Bank that critics argue would make it harder for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu sparked controversy this month by reportedly telling Israeli lawmakers in a private meeting that the notion of creating a Palestinian state "must be eliminated." The remarks drew a strong rebuke from the Palestinian Authority.

"The role of the Palestinian Authority is to achieve the Palestinian national project of freedom, independence, and protection of the Palestinian people," Hussein al-Sheikh, the Palestinian Authority's civil affairs minister, said in a statement, according to The Jerusalem Post.

The turmoil in Israel appears to have impacted Netanyahu's relationship with Biden.

Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for decades. It's customary for a close ally of the U.S. to receive an invitation to meet with the U.S. president after taking office. But Netanyahu, who faces corruption charges in a yearslong trial, was not extended an invitation to meet with Biden after he was sworn in for a sixth term as Israel's prime minister last December.

The two leaders spoke by phone Monday, ahead of Herzog's visit. Biden told Netanyahu that the United States remains committed to Israel's security, according to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, who briefed reporters on the call.

But Kirby said Biden also raised concerns about the proposed judiciary overhaul and expansion of West Bank settlements.

"The president stressed the need to take measures to maintain the viability of a two-state solution," Kirby said.

He added that the leaders had agreed to meet in person "some time" later this year, but, perhaps tellingly, a date for the meeting has not been set.

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