Netanyahu and Biden trade barbs over plan to weaken courts as Israel rejects ‘pressure’ from White House
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“We are in the middle of an important debate, we will overcome it,” Netanyahu said in a statement to staff on Tuesday after announcing that the legislation will be paused until after Passover.
“You are going to Passover, on the eve of Seder you will sit with the families. You can fight a little, not too much, you will come to an agreement. This is our goal is to reach agreements, both among you and among us,” he said.