image Photo: Amos Ben-Gershom (GPO)

US Rep. McCarthy visits Israel

United States House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy stated that he deliberately selected the Jewish State as the destination of his first overseas since being voted into office in January “because there is no greater ally to America than Israel.”

By Erin Viner

“It is wonderful to see you here,” said Israeli President Isaac Herzog at the start of a working meeting the Republican Congressman from California, who led a 17-member delegation of members of both US parties.

“We attach great importance to your bipartisan visit. Mr. Speaker, it is an honor for us to have you here with us. We see all of you as great friends. We are extremely proud and happy to celebrate 75 years of our country,” added the Israeli leader, adding, “Our relationship with the United States runs in our DNA, America is a very close ally of ours.”

Referencing dangers posed by Iran, President Herzog stressed that as opposed to Israel’s happiness over “full integration in the region as a result of the Abraham Accords, which came after peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt,” that “on the other hand, there is a great enemy threatening us not far from here. Half an hour in any direction from here is an enemy state, and we believe that the alliance with America is of great importance.”

Speaker McCarthy thanked the President for his warm welcome while underscoring, “There’s no greater bond than our relationship. There is no other democracy in the Middle East – there are only two countries that were created with the idea, conceived in liberty but dedicated to the idea that everybody’s equal. Sometimes you have tough neighbors, but we want to make sure that changes and I think the Abraham Accords was one of the greatest milestones that we could do towards this, and we need to build on that. We’re here for the 75th anniversary – we didn’t want to miss it – as we look forward to issues going forward. You’ve developed an amazing country, especially when it comes to technology.”

During their discussions, the two elaborated on the Iranian threat, the Abraham Accords, strategies to further deepen bilateral cooperation and the ongoing internal debates in Israel on the issue of the proposed judicial reform.

A later diplomatic meeting was expanded to include the President’s advisors, Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog and 17 members of a bipartisan delegation led by the Speaker.

McCarthy went on to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said he was “delighted” to welcome the US House of Representatives Speaker, whom he described as “an old friend of mine, and an old friend and a trusted friend of the State of Israel: Kevin McCarthy. He has been a champion of the Israeli-American alliance. I think we have no better friend.”

Calling the recent statement by 400 members of Congress in support of Israel “tremendous,” Netanyahu commented, “You know, to get 95% agreement on anything today is no mean matter. And I think it expresses the strength of that alliance and the strength of that support.”

The US Speaker told the Israeli leader, whom he reciprocally named a “longtime friend,” that his leadership, character and courage have also inspires the United States.

After expressing pride that the US recognized the new State of Israel just 11 minutes after it was declared in 1948, McCarthy said “our bonds have only grown each and every year. And I look to the next 75 years. The world is better when American and Israel are tighter. The world is safer. I think of what we’ve been able to accomplish. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. There’s only two countries in the world that were conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are equal. And as we continue to grow that, I think the world will be safer, be stronger and our children will have a much beautiful world in the future.”

The US Speaker went on to speak at a special session of the opening of Knesset summer session held in his honor; marking just the second time in 25 years that an American congressional leader spoke before the plenum.

“America is grateful for our friendship with Israel, we are a better nation because of it and we must never shy away from defending it,” he stated before the parliament, adding, “We have come so far in 75 years but the promise of years ahead is just as compelling. I believe the best days for Israel and our unbreakable bond are ahead of us.”

In his own address, Prime Minister Netanyahu emphasized that, “the first and most urgent challenge is the joint effort by Israel and the US to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The IDF and the US Armed Forces recently completed the largest military exercise in the history of Israel and for this I would like to thank the Biden administration.”

Focusing on “the threat emanating from the fanatic regime in Iran, which threatens not only Israel but also the US and the entire free world,” the Premier vowed, “the need to block the nuclear arming of Iran will continue to be at the top of Israel’s priorities during the Knesset summer session, as will our determination to confront Iran’s regional proxies. We will not allow Iran to place a noose of terrorism around us – not in Syria, not in Lebanon, not in Gaza, and not in Judea and Samaria. We will not allow Iran to entrench itself militarily on our borders and we will do everything to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons.”

Turning to his government’s controversial judicial reform push that has sparked unprecedented weekly nationwide demonstrations for 17 successive weeks, Netanyahu said in remarks directed at McCarthy, “My friends and I are committed to get a broad consensus, as broad as we can get, on the matter of the judicial reform that is now at the heart of the Israeli national debate.”

Israel’s right-wing 37th government, an alliance between the Premier’s Likud party with several smaller religious and hard-right nationalist factions, asserts it holds the mandate for changes, deemed necessary to curb overreach by activist judges and restore balance between the legislative, executive and judiciary.

The court’s defenders say it plays a vital role in holding the government to account in a country that has no formal constitution, and that the government’s overhaul would weaken the courts, endanger civil liberties and harm the economy. The proposal has drawn fierce condemnation from Opposition Members of Knesset (MKs), legal officials, military reservists and advocacy groups – further broadening already deep political divisions in Israeli society in what has been described as Israel’s worst-ever crisis.

While the Republican lawmaker’s high-profile visit was portrayed as symbolic of US bipartisan support for Israel, critics view it as a pointed jab at Democratic President Joe Biden. Biden has sought to make clear he opposes Netanyahu government plans that would strip Israel’s highest court of much of its power, although he has taken care to avoid an acrimonious public confrontation. In the last few months, Biden and senior members of his team have nevertheless also expressed alarm about Israeli plans for settlement expansion on the West Bank, as well as rising violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

The US President has also so far neglected to extend a customary invitation for Netanyahu to visit Washington since his reelection as Premier five months ago.

McCarthy did not hold back from addressing that perceived slight. “I expect the White House to invite the Prime Minister over for a meeting, especially with the 75th anniversary,” he said at a press conference in Jerusalem, later telling the Israel HaYom newspaper that he would invite Netanyahu himself if such an invitation is not forthcoming.

The Biden administration was aware of McCarthy’s comments, US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Monday.

While nothing has yet been scheduled, he commented, “Israeli leaders have a long tradition of visiting Washington. President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu have known each other for a long, long time. I expect the Prime Minister will visit at some point.” Kirby went on to say that the President Biden expects Israel’s judicial reform to be approved by a broad consensus that would also preserve checks and balances. “We are having frank discussions about our concerns,” he added.

Netanyahu has long held close ties with the US Republican Party, at times seeming to work with them more than Democrats. He controversially visited Washington in 2015 to address Congress after an invitation from Republicans – who did not consult Democrats or then-Democratic President Barack Obama, for whom Biden served as vice president – violating long-standing tradition.

McCarthy also confirmed that Israeli President Herzog will be visiting the White House “for a joint session” in the near future, although the Netanyahu visit would be to meet with Congressional members but not an address to the House.