The judicial reform proposal sparked the worst crisis in American-Israeli relations in decades, as US President Joe Biden called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the plan and said he would not host him in the White House at this time.
“I hope he [Netanyahu] walks away from it,” Biden told reporters as he issued his most clear objections to the plan to date and opened an intensely public dispute between the two leaders, who are also good friends.
When asked if he would invite Netanyahu to the White House, Biden quickly replied, “No, not in the near term.”
It is extremely unusual for a US president to so blatantly rebuke Israel and refuse to host an Israeli leader, particularly a president who is viewed as a strong supporter of the Jewish state.
Biden’s words were heatedly debated in Israel as the Right accused him of crossing a redline when it came to domestic interference, while the Left blamed Netanyahu for creating a dangerous rift with the country’s strongest ally.
Netanyahu defends judicial reform, says Biden shouldn't interfere in Israeli domestic affairs
Netanyahu attempted to do damage control by arguing that the Israeli-US alliance was unshakable, but his words did little to bridge the gap between Washington and Jerusalem over the reform plan. The White House fears it will harm Israeli democracy, which it views as one of the pillars of the historic relationship.
“Like many strong supporters of Israel, I am very concerned,” Biden told reporters on Tuesday. “I am concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road. I have sort of made that clear.”
“Hopefully, the prime minister will act in a way that he will try to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen,” he said.
Although it was after midnight in Israel when his words came out, Netanyahu tweeted a response: “I have known President Biden for over 40 years, and I appreciate his longstanding commitment to Israel. The alliance between Israel and the United States is unbreakable and always overcomes the occasional differences between us.”
He defended his judicial reform program, which critics warn is weakening Israeli democracy. Netanyahu said, therefore, there is no room for the US to intervene in Israel’s domestic affairs.
“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,” he 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.”Benjamin Netanyahu
Biden rejected Netanyahu’s accusations, saying “We’re not interfering.”
Biden indicated that his words should not come as a surprise.
“They [Israelis] know my position,” he said. “They know America’s position.”
Biden also appeared to reference the pressure he has been under from Jewish voters to speak out.
“They know the American Jewish position,” he said.
US Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday was asked by reporters if she was concerned.
“I am. We’re all watching it,” she said, adding that democracy was the backbone of the Israeli-US relationship.
“We have a long and enduring relationship... based on a number of factors that include an intertwined history, but also that relate to shared principles in terms of the importance of democracy,” Harris said.
“We will continue to [work] on strengthening our relationship based on that – a commitment to democracies,” she added.
US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby echoed Biden’s words when he spoke with reporters at the White House.
“We obviously urge Israeli leaders to come up with a compromise as soon as possible. And the president’s comments yesterday [about] ‘walking away from it’ are perfectly consistent with finding a compromise that preserves checks and balances in Israel.
“We’d like to see decisions made there... that are in keeping with a consensus and that can be done with the broadest possible base of public support. Because that’s one of the key components of a democracy. And Israel is a democracy,” he said.
A number of right-wing politicians argued that Biden had been misinformed and led to incorrectly believe that the overhaul plan was harming Israeli democracy instead of saving it.
Culture and Sport Minister Miki Zohar (Likud) tweeted: “It breaks my heart to see how much damage has been done to Israel from all the fake news that has been spread in connection with our justified legal reform.”
In a letter to the US Congress, Likud MK Dan Illouz said Biden’s words were a “blatant intervention in Israel’s democratic process,” which “crossed a red line in the relationship between our two great countries.”
He urged Congress to “use all the tools at your disposal to ensure these types of problematic statements do not happen again.”
Opposition politicians attacked Netanyahu and called for his government to be voted out of office.
Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli said Biden’s “words are not a wake-up call for Netanyahu but a wake-up call for the [Israeli] public.”
“President Biden says, in his own way, that Netanyahu is dangerous for Israel, dangerous for democracy and dangerous for security,” she said. “Every moment he is in office brings us another step closer to destruction. It is time to [call] for elections and to replace this dangerous government.”
Opposition leader Yair Lapid tweeted: “For decades Israel was the United States’ closest ally; the most extreme government in the country’s history spoiled that in three months.”
Former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk tweeted that while Biden and Netanyahu were friends, “This is not about internal interference as Bibi would have it. It’s that friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”
Netanyahu spent the day shoring up the message that Israeli-US ties had not been impacted by his very public spat with Biden.
He picked up on the Knesset’s passage Tuesday of legislation necessary for its entry into the US visa waiver program and tweeted about it, noting that this was important news for Israelis. He promised that Israel would fulfill the other requirements to help ensure that Israel could enter the program by the end of September.
Netanyahu also participated in a virtual panel at a US-sponsored Democracy Forum. He used the platform to underscore his commitment to democracy and to downplay the crisis, insisting that “nothing could change” the “unshakable” relations between the two countries.
“Israel and the United States have had their occasional differences,” he said. “The alliance between the world’s greatest democracy and a strong proud and independent democracy Israel in the heart of the Middle East is unshakable; nothing can change that.”
Netanyahu defended his judicial overhaul program and emphasized that Israel “was, is and will always remain a proud strong and vibrant democracy as a beacon of liberty and shared prosperity in the heart of the Middle East.”
He rejected charges by critics that his plan would transform Israel from a democracy into a dictatorship and likened the judicial overhaul plan to his transformation of the Israeli economy when he was finance minister 20 years ago.
That overhaul was “met with massive protests” and dire warnings that it would wreck the economy, but the opposite proved to be true, Netanyahu said.
The judicial overhaul plan has sparked an intensive debate about how to protect the country’s democracy, he said, adding: The question facing Israel is “how do we insure a proper democracy? Democracy means the will of the people as expressed by a majority, and it also means the protection of civil rights and individual rights. It’s the balance between the two.
“Half the people are convinced that the will of the majority as expressed in the legislative and executive branch has been in many ways obstructed by an all-powerful judiciary that dominates them and does not let the public will be expressed.
“The other half of the people are concerned that… if any curtailment of judiciary power is enacted, this would impair and obstruct civil liberties,” Netanyahu said.
To move forward, “both considerations have to be taken into account,” he said. “Both of them are valid, and both of them are true. We have to make sure that as we shift the pendulum so that the courts are transformed from an ever-powerful judiciary to an independent judiciary that the need to strengthen the executive and the legislative is executed in a way that protects individual rights.”
Netanyahu said he backed the suspension of legislation on the Judicial Selection Committee to allow for dialogue with the opposition, a move he took after the Histadrut labor federation held a one-day strike that shut the country down.
There is a “historic opportunity to strengthen democracy” and restore the balance between the three branches of government, while “enshrining civil rights with an agreed national consensus,” Netanyahu said.
The rights of Israeli citizens to protest are clear, he said, adding that those rights were “sacrosanct” but that he wanted to move from protest to agreement.
Downplaying the absence of an invitation to the White House
Kirby said the White House appreciated Netanyahu’s words.
“There’s a lot to like” about it, Kirby said, adding that Netanyahu “talked about searching for compromise” and “building a consensus” and about how “unshakable he knows the relationship is between the United States and Israel. And he talked about his great respect for President Biden.
“That’s a respect that President Biden shares as well,” Kirby said, as he referenced the friendship between the two men.
“The great thing about friends” is “you don’t always agree with everything your friend does or says. And the great thing about a deep friendship is you can be that candid with one another.”
Reuters contributed to this report.•