Middle East

Biden and Netanyahu trade barbs over plan to weaken courts as Israel rejects ‘pressure’ from White House

By Rob Picheta, Kevin Liptak and Hadas Gold, CNN

CNN — 

Israel’s embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu escalated a rare public dispute with US President Joe Biden on Tuesday, rejecting “pressure” from the White House after Biden criticized his controversial efforts to weaken the Israeli judiciary.

The back and forth thrust into public view a simmering diplomatic dispute that has mostly been kept private over the past several weeks. Biden and other US officials had sought to quietly dissuade Netanyahu from moving ahead with his proposed reforms without creating the appearance of a rift. But now the divide appears to be opening between the two men, who have known each other for decades.

Biden said on Tuesday that he won’t invite Netanyahu to the White House “in the near term,” and issued an unusually stinging rebuke of Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul after mass protests and strikes brought Israel to a standstill and delayed the legislation.

“Like many strong supporters of Israel I’m very concerned. I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road. I’ve sort of made that clear,” Biden told reporters in North Carolina. “Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can work out some genuine compromise,” he said. “That remains to be seen.”

In separate remarks on Tuesday, Biden added of Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul: “I hope he walks away from it.”

Netanyahu responded with a statement late on Tuesday evening, in which he noted Biden’s “longstanding commitment to Israel,” but added: “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”

The exchange puts an unusual strain on the relationship between the leaders of the two closely allied countries.

A senior Israeli official tried to play down any sense of a “crisis” in a briefing with American reporters on Wednesday, characterizing the dispute as a two on a scale of 10 and calling it a “tempest in a teapot.” Speaking on background to discuss diplomatic relations, the official said neither the Americans nor the Israelis were interested in ratcheting up the spat, and that Israel believes the Americans will issues statements calming the situation.

But the official defended Israel, saying democracies should let other democracies “figure it out.”

Yair Lapid, Israel’s opposition leader and former premier, said Wednesday that Netanyahu’s efforts have “ruined” the relationship. “For decades Israel was the USA’s closest ally. The most extreme government in the country’s history ruined that in three months,” Lapid tweeted.

It follows an eruption of anger inside Israel, and within some Jewish communities in the US and around the world, at the Netanyahu government’s attempts to weaken the power of the country’s courts.

The prime minister finally paused the legislation on Monday after a general strike and mass protests threw Israel into chaos, but he said he planned to return to the effort in the next legislative term. Critics say Netanyahu is pushing through the changes because of his own ongoing corruption trial, which he denies.

The senior Israeli official said that US pressure did not have any bearing on Netanyahu’s decision to pause the legislation, instead citing fears of pro- and anti-overhaul demonstrators facing one another in the streets. The official said that Netanyahu was serious about reaching an agreement, but drew some red lines of what was negotiable and what was not.

A provision giving the government more control over the selection of judges can’t be taken out of the equation, he said. But the override clause, where the parliament will be able to overturn Supreme Court decisions, will likely not be in the final package, the official added.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog has been convening discussions among lawmakers since the controversial legislation was put on hold Tuesday.

There was “good faith” during the first round of talks, the official said, but added that if negotiations don’t succeed, and Netanyahu doesn’t pass the legislation as it is currently written, he’s “telling his voters they don’t matter.”

When asked why they didn’t start with negotiations, the official said Netanyahu was gagged by a court-imposed conflict of interest declaration. When asked why Justice Minister Yariv Levin didn’t engage in negotiations, the official referred the question to the Justice Minister.

Netanyahu struck a defensive tone in taped remarks to the White House-hosted Summit for Democracy Wednesday morning, acknowledging “public and often painful discourse,” in his nation over the proposed reforms, while expressing hope dissent would “move from protest to agreement.”

“I want to thank the world leaders and President Biden, who’s been a friend for 40 years for convening this important conference,” he said. “You know Israel and the United States have had their occasional differences, but I want to assure you that the alliance between the world’s greatest democracy, and a strong, proud, and independent democracy – Israel – in the heart of the Middle East, is unshakeable, nothing can change that.”

Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right firebrand who serves as Netanyahu’s National Security Minister, was less diplomatic in his rebuke. “Both President Biden and all the administration officials in the US should understand that Israel is an independent country, it is not another star on the US flag,” he said on Israel Army Radio Wednesday.

Ahead of the summit, White House officials defended Israel’s participation despite concerns about democratic backsliding, saying they’d invited all countries who were working toward democratic ideals.

Biden had so far avoided a direct criticism of Netanyahu’s efforts, with his administration instead saying on Sunday that it was watching the escalating tension with “concern.”

But his comments on Tuesday marked a rare instance of the US directly weighing in on Israeli domestic affairs.

It was also announced on Tuesday that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will visit Jerusalem next month, a trip that is certain to inject the likely Republican presidential contender into Israel’s national tumult and its increasingly fraught relationship with the US.

“At a time of unnecessarily strained relations between Jerusalem and Washington, Florida serves as a bridge between the American and Israeli people,” DeSantis told the Jerusalem Post, which announced details of his planned keynote address at an April 27 event.

The debate over Netanyahu’s proposals is likely to ratchet up again before then; while he bought himself time on Monday, he has remained determined to see through an overhaul of the judiciary that critics say diminishes Israel’s democracy.

CNN’s Celine Alkhaldi and Hande Atay Alam contributed reporting

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