President Biden met with President Isaac Herzog of Israel on Tuesday at the White House, a diplomatic overture to one of America’s key allies amid tensions between the Biden administration and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister.
In brief remarks before the meeting, Mr. Biden told Mr. Herzog “welcome back — pleasure to have you here” and noted that Israel was celebrating 75 years of existence. He gave Mr. Herzog a fist bump and called the relationship between the United States and Israel “simply unbreakable.”
Mr. Herzog said he brought “greetings and gratitude” from “all sides of the political spectrum” in Israel.
White House officials had described the meeting with Mr. Herzog as an opportunity for Mr. Biden to strengthen an already “ironclad” relationship between the two countries. They said the two leaders would discuss preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon as part of the White House called its “unwavering commitment” to Israel’s security.
But the declarations of mutual respect have masked strains between the two governments that have grown in recent years, as Mr. Biden has become increasingly frustrated with Mr. Netanyahu’s positions on Israeli settlements and efforts to overhaul the nation’s judicial system.
On Monday, Mr. Biden ended months of delay in offering Mr. Netanyahu a formal visit to the United States. After the two leaders talked on the phone, Mr. Biden invited the prime minister to meet in the United States, most likely before the end of the year — though not necessarily at the White House.
The visit by Mr. Herzog, whose position in Israel’s government is largely ceremonial, is an opportunity for Mr. Biden to express his commitment to the Middle Eastern country without delivering the political benefits of a White House visit to Mr. Netanyahu.
Israel is a central U.S. ally in the Middle East and the recipient of billions of dollars in aid each year. White House officials said Mr. Biden planned to emphasize areas of cooperation, including progress toward normalization of relations with other Middle Eastern countries and diplomatic efforts with the Palestinians.
Some supporters in the United States consider Mr. Herzog, who ran against Mr. Netanyahu almost a decade ago, a bridge builder whose efforts to find a middle ground in Israel’s fraught political climate are a welcome change from some of the more extremist elements of the country’s government.
But even before Tuesday, his visit was generating controversy. Several liberal lawmakers said they would boycott Mr. Herzog’s planned speech to Congress on Wednesday to protest Mr. Netanyahu’s government.
Earlier this month, Mr. Biden called Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet “one of the most extremist” he had seen in decades of foreign policy engagement with Israel — in effect acknowledging the anger among many progressives with the prime minister’s policies.
White House officials had previously said that Mr. Biden planned to raise his concerns about the Israeli government’s expansion of settlements, which the administration considers an impediment to an eventual two-state solution, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Officials had said Mr. Biden would also express to Mr. Herzog his discomfort with Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to make changes to the judicial system that critics say would undermine the power of Israel’s Supreme Court.
“We want to see Israel be as vibrant and as viable a democracy as possible,” said John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council. “And that means that you build programs and reforms and changes in a way that is based on compromise.”
But officials also said the president’s meeting with Mr. Herzog in the Oval Office was an attempt to underscore the history of friendship that has characterized the relationship between the two countries since Israel’s creation.
“As Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary, the visit will highlight our enduring partnership and friendship,” a White House statement said the day before the meeting. “The two leaders will discuss opportunities to deepen Israel’s regional integration and to create a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East.”