How the Biden-Netanyahu relationship turned chilly

IIt was an unusually pointed exchange of comments between a US president and an Israeli prime minister.

Joe Biden told reporters Wednesday afternoon that Benjamin Netanyahu would not be coming to the White House “in the short term” and that he hoped Netanyahu would “walk away” from the judicial overhaul effort that has crippled Israel.

Within hours, Netanyahu had Biden pushed back. He took to Twitter with a retort that Israel is “a sovereign country” that makes “decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressure from abroad, including best friends.”

It was the most visible sign of how the relationship between Biden and Netanyahu has turned distinctly frosty, a development that could have far-reaching implications for the role of the two countries, particularly in the Middle East. It has been three months since Netanyahu was named prime minister for the third time. He has not been to Washington since being sworn in in December, a rare absence for a newly elected Israeli leader.

“Any Israeli prime minister wants to have a quick visit to Washington to coordinate with the president,” said Daniel Shapiro, a prominent member of the Atlantic Council and US ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017, who noted that the two leaders would like to work to be on the same page on a long list of pressing issues, including “the threat Iran poses and how to deal with it.”

Netanyahu’s latest return to power has been overshadowed by the deal he had to strike with Israel’s far-right parties to make it happen, including a promise to push for increased executive control of the judiciary. The move sent alarm bells ringing across Israel that it would undermine the checks and balances between the country’s branches of government.

It also rattled Biden’s inner circle.

Biden has long considered himself a close friend of Israel, from his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to his tenure as vice president, when he was called upon to ease tensions between President Obama and Netanyahu. , who was in the middle of a previous prime ministership, on US efforts to push forward a nuclear deal with Iran.

Netanyahu’s plan to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court has sparked weeks of massive protests and debilitating work stoppages. On Monday, Netanyahu announced he was forgoing the overhaul for now, but signaled he still intended to move the plan forward at a later date. That leaves Netanyahu’s attempt to retain power on a collision course not just with much of the Israeli public, but also with Biden. The confrontation threatens to strain US-Israeli relations.

Learn more: What Protests in Israel Ignore

“Like many staunch supporters of Israel, I am very worried. And I’m afraid they understand that. They can’t continue down this path,” Biden told reporters Wednesday afternoon from the wing of Air Force One, as the president wrapped up a visit to a semiconductor maker in North Carolina.

The split comes at a critical time in the Middle East. Israel and the United States maintain close security ties, sharing information on terrorist threats, as well as Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last week that Iran could generate a nuclear weapon in several months, if it decided to produce the fissile material. US forces recently exchanged strikes with militants in Syria affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In a March 19 phone call, Biden told Netanyahu that democratic values ​​are “a hallmark” of US-Israeli relations and that “democratic societies are strengthened by genuine checks and balances,” according to a description of the statement. call to the White House. The two have not spoken since.

A sign of the amount of work and coordination that continues between the two governments is the number of senior Biden administration officials who have visited the country in recent months. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan visited Israel in January, weeks after Netanyahu took office, as did CIA Director Bill Burns and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Milley was in Israel in early March. Ron Dermer, a close adviser to Netanyahu and Minister of Strategic Affairs, has also made multiple trips to Washington since the start of the year. But Netanyahu has not visited the Oval Office since Donald Trump was president and there are currently no plans to do so.

“If it hadn’t been for some of Netanyahu’s policies, I suspect you would have had an early invitation for Netanyahu to come to the White House,” said Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. and former State Department official. advisor for the Arab-Israeli negotiations. “Joe Biden is in love with the idea of ​​Israel. He is not in love with Benjamin Netanyahu.

It is unclear whether Netanyahu will change course in his efforts to weaken Israel’s justice system or whether he intends to press ahead, hoping his pause will deflate the energy behind the protests. Apart from fears that the overhaul will weaken the country’s democracy, the changes could also personally benefit Netanyahu. He is facing a corruption trial in Israel, and giving the executive more authority over the country’s judicial system would give it more power to sit on judges who could decide cases involving it.

In recent years, Netanyahu has tended to move towards conflict, not away from it. In 2019, I interviewed him for a TIME cover story about becoming Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Sitting on couches inside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, Netanyahu admitted he has few hobbies other than smoking a cigar at the end of the day and reading history books in his spare time. . He noted that he had recently read The lessons of history, by Will and Ariel Durant and recommended it. The #1 lesson he took from the book was that turning the other cheek might not be a winning strategy in the annals of time. “History does not favor Christ over Genghis Khan,” he told TIME.

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