Netanyahu, Biden discuss plan to weaken courts as Israel rejects White House ‘pressure’
On Tuesday, embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu escalated a rare public spat with US President Joe Biden, rejecting “pressure” from the White House after Biden criticized his controversial efforts to weaken Israel’s justice system.
The back-and-forth has brought into public view a simmering diplomatic dispute that has remained mostly private for the past few weeks. Biden and other US officials had sought to quietly dissuade Netanyahu from moving forward with his proposed reforms without creating the appearance of a rift. But now the rift seems to be opening between the two men, who have known each other for decades.
Biden said Tuesday he would not invite Netanyahu to the White House “in the near term,” and issued an unusually scathing rebuke of Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul after mass protests and strikes crippled Israel and delayed the legislation.
“Like many staunch supporters of Israel, I am very worried. I’m afraid they don’t understand that. They cannot continue on this path. I sort of clarified that,” Biden told reporters in North Carolina. “I hope the Prime Minister will act in a way that finds a real compromise,” he said. “That remains to be seen.”
In separate remarks Tuesday, Biden added of Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul: “I hope he walks away from it.”
Netanyahu responded with a statement Tuesday evening, in which he noted Biden’s “long-standing commitment to Israel,” but added, “Israel is a sovereign country that makes its decisions by the will of its people and not on the the basis of pressure from abroad, including the best of friends.
The exchange strains relations between the leaders of the two closely allied countries.
Yair Lapid, Israeli opposition leader and former prime minister, said Wednesday that Netanyahu’s efforts had “ruined” the relationship. “For decades, Israel has been America’s closest ally. The most extreme government in the country’s history ruined this in three months,” Lapid tweeted.
This follows an eruption of anger inside Israel, and among some Jewish communities in the United States and around the world, over the Netanyahu government’s attempts to weaken the power of the country’s courts.
The prime minister finally suspended the legislation on Monday after a general strike and mass protests threw Israel into chaos, but he said he planned to resume the effort in the next legislature. Critics say Netanyahu is pushing for changes because of his own ongoing corruption trial, which he denies.
Netanyahu struck a defensive tone in his taped remarks at the White House Democracy Summit on Wednesday morning, acknowledging “the public and often painful discourse” in his country over the proposed reforms, while expressing hope that dissent “would go from protest to agreement”.
“I want to thank world leaders and President Biden, who has been a friend for 40 years for convening this important conference,” he said. “You know that Israel and the United States have had occasional differences, but I want to assure you that the alliance between the largest democracy in the world and a strong, proud and independent democracy – Israel – at the heart of the Middle East, is unshakeable, nothing can change that.
Ahead of the summit, White House officials defended Israel’s participation despite concerns about democratic backsliding, saying they had invited all countries that worked for democratic ideals.
Biden had so far avoided directly criticizing Netanyahu’s efforts, with his administration instead saying on Sunday that it was monitoring the escalating tension with “concern.”
But his Tuesday comments marked a rare instance of the United States directly influencing Israel’s internal affairs.
It was also announced Tuesday that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis will visit Jerusalem next month, a trip that is sure to inject the likely Republican presidential candidate into national uproar about Israel and its relations with increasingly tense with the United States.
“At a time of unnecessarily strained relations between Jerusalem and Washington, Florida serves as a bridge between the American and Israeli peoples,” DeSantis told The Jerusalem Post, which announced details of his planned keynote address at an event. April 27.
Debate over Netanyahu’s proposals likely to resume by then; While taking time off on Monday, he remained determined to push through an overhaul of the justice system that critics say weakens Israeli democracy.