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Netanyahu and Biden exchange frosty words over judicial overhaul

Netanyahu said Israel makes its own decisions, rebuffing the U.S. president’s suggestion that that the premier drop a contentious plan to overhaul the country’s legal system

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on March 19, 2023.Abir Sultan (AP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday rebuffed President Joe Biden’s suggestion that the premier walk away from a contentious plan to overhaul the legal system, saying the country makes its own decisions. The exchange was a rare bout of public disagreement between the two close allies and signals building friction between Israel and the United States over Netanyahu’s judicial changes, which he postponed after massive protests.

Asked by reporters late Tuesday what he hopes the premier does with the legislation, Biden replied, “I hope he walks away from it.” The president added that Netanyahu’s government “cannot continue down this road” and urged compromise on the plan roiling Israel. The president also stepped around U.S. Ambassador Thomas Nides’ suggestion that Netanyahu would soon be invited to the White House, saying, “No, not in the near term.”

Netanyahu replied that Israel is sovereign and “makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”

Later on Wednesday, Netanyahu struck a more conciliatory tone, saying that while “Israel and the United States have had their occasional differences,” the alliance between them was “unshakable.” “Nothing can change that,” he said in remarks to the State Department’s Summit for Democracy.

The frosty exchange came a day after Netanyahu called for a halt to his government’s contentious legislation “to avoid civil war” in the wake of two consecutive days of mass protests that drew tens of thousands of people to Israel’s streets.

“Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can try to work out some genuine compromise. But that remains to be seen,” Biden said to reporters as he left North Carolina to return to Washington.

Israeli protest organizers called for a demonstration in support of Biden outside the U.S. Embassy building in Tel Aviv on Thursday, while Netanyahu’s allies doubled down on their criticism.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a close Netanyahu ally and minister in charge of police, told Israel’s Army Radio that Israel “is not another star in the American flag.”

“I expect the U.S. president to understand this point,” he said.

Speaking to Kan public radio, Education Minister Yoav Kisch said that “a friend may not try to impose on the other regarding internal issues.”

Netanyahu had several public spats with then-President Barack Obama over Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear issue. In 2015, he went behind the White House’s back to address Congress and rail against a nuclear deal between world powers and Iran that was in the offing.

Nimrod Goren, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, noted that the U.S.-Israel relationship has had previous points of crisis — over, for example, the now-defunct agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities. In contrast, he said, now the White House appeared to be “questioning Netanyahu’s competence as prime minister, and whether he’s reliable or responsible.”

Netanyahu and his religious and ultranationalist allies announced the judicial overhaul in January just days after forming their government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history.

The proposal has plunged Israel into its worst domestic crisis in decades. Business leaders, top economists and former security chiefs have all come out against the plan, saying it is pushing the country toward dictatorship.

It has also drawn criticism from Israel’s supporters in the U.S., including American Jewish organizations, as well as Democratic members of Congress. A Pew poll published last May found a widening partisan divide over Israel and the Palestinians, with Democrats — especially young voters — increasingly expressing favorable views about the Palestinians.

The plan would give Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, and his allies the final say in appointing the nation’s judges. It would also give parliament, which is controlled by his allies, authority to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit the court’s ability to review laws.

Critics say the legislation would concentrate power in the hands of the coalition in parliament and upset the balance of checks and balances between branches of government.

Netanyahu said he was “striving to achieve (it) via a broad consensus” in talks with opposition leaders that began Tuesday.

Yair Lapid, the opposition leader in Israel’s parliament, wrote on Twitter that Israel was one of the closest U.S. allies for decades but “the most radical government in the country’s history ruined that in three months.”

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