Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu risks harming American-Israel ties if he rushes to slam through judicial overhaul legislation without securing broad political consensus for such reform, US President Joe Biden told The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman.
Biden was so concerned about the issue that he had invited Friedman to converse with him for over an hour in the Oval Office on Tuesday, just one day after the US president had spoken by phone with Netanyahu.
The president’s message could not have been clearer, Friedman wrote as he summed up in his own words the essence of Biden’s message just as the Knesset is slated next week to approve the first significant piece of judicial reform legislation.
“Please stop now. Don’t pass anything this important without a broad consensus, or you are going to break something with Israel’s democracy and with your relationship with America’s democracy, and you may never be able to get it back,” Friedman paraphrased the president.
It was important, Friedman wrote in his column, to take Biden seriously because he may be “the last pro-Israel Democratic president. You [Netanyahu] ignore his sincere concerns at your peril.”
The Friedman-Biden conversation came a day after the US president held his first conversation with Netanyahu in months.
Biden had twice publicly rebuffed the idea of hosting Netanyahu at the White House, before agreeing to meet with him in the US during Monday’s phone call.
When will there be a Biden-Netanyahu meeting?
National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi told Channel 12 that the invitation had been to the White House, most likely in September, but that the details had to be worked out.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby and White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre both refused to confirm an Oval Office invite for Netanyahu despite multiple public queries by reporters during two separate press conferences.
The best Jean-Pierre could state was that Netanyahu and Biden “have committed to meeting and seeing each other in the United States later this year.”
Biden, however, did speak with Friedman about Netanyahu in the Oval Office on the same day that he also hosted President Isaac Herzog in that room.
Tensions have been high between the Israeli prime minister and the US president over issues relating to Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly settlement activity.
But Biden has been particularly concerned about Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan, which supporters say will strengthen Israel’s democracy, and whose opponents warn it would transform the country into a dictatorship.
During his phone conversation with Netanyahu and his discussions with Herzog and Friedman, Biden brought up his concerns about Israel’s judicial reform.
Friedman quoted only two direct statements from Biden in his column about the pending danger of Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan in its current form.
“This is obviously an area about which Israelis have strong views, including in an enduring protest movement that is demonstrating the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, which must remain the core of our bilateral relationship,” Biden said
“Finding consensus on controversial areas of policy means taking the time you need. For significant changes, that’s essential. So my recommendation to Israeli leaders is not to rush. I believe the best outcome is to continue to seek the broadest possible consensus here,” the US president added.
Hanegbi said the statement Biden gave to Friedman and the sentiments he expressed in their conversation were not reflected in the Monday night phone call between the two leaders.
“The telephone conversation between the US president and the prime minister was, as described by both parties, ‘good, cordial and constructive.’
“The statements attributed to the president in the article in the New York Times were not said at all in the conversation,” Hanegbi said.
“Netanyahu informed the [US] president that the Knesset next week will approve the existing legislation and during the Knesset’s summer break he will work to forge a broad public consensus regarding the rest of the process” of judicial reform, Hanegbi said. His statement was akin to the one the Prime Minister’s Office published on Monday night after the call.
Hanegbi’s words were reflective of the stance Netanyahu and his office has taken with respect to Biden as they continue to downplay the tension between the two men.
In an interview with Channel 11, Friedman defended his column stating that Biden made clear that this was “his position before he spoke” to Netanyahu and Herzog, while he spoke to them, and after he spoke to them.
“He wanted to make sure that every Israeli citizen understood that,” Friedman said.
Biden is “distraught” over the judicial overhaul plan, Friedman said.
“Israel could be making decisions right now that would undermine the legitimacy of its democracy and the independence of its judiciary, and democracies all over the world will never be the same.
“This may be one of the most fateful two weeks in Israeli history,” Friedman stated.
Last week, he wrote an opinion piece in which he said that the Biden administration was reevaluating its relationship with Netanyahu’s government.
The Prime Minister’s Office has downplayed the tension between Jerusalem and Washington. Just last week, however, Biden told CNN that Netanyahu’s government was the “most extreme” that he had seen in the 50 years he has been involved in Israeli politics.
Kirby affirmed for reporters that the two men have a historically strong relationship and, as such, they can speak frankly with each other.
“These are two leaders that know each other, have known each other for a long time. And as friends can and friends should, you speak honestly, openly, forthrightly, candidly. You lay it out there,” Kirby said.
“That relationship, and the conversation itself, does not mean that the Biden administration has less concerns over these judicial reforms or less concerns over some of the extremist activities and behavior by some members of the Netanyahu cabinet. Those concerns are still valid. They’re disturbing,” he said.
The White House said that on Tuesday, Biden had raised the issue in his meeting with Herzog, stating that the two men “noted the strength of the US-Israel relationship, based on the bedrock of shared democratic values, and discussed the need for a consensus-based approach to the judicial reform package.”
Herzog has been outspoken about his support for a consensus-based approach to reform, and has held talks with representatives from all sides of the political spectrum, which have yet to yield results.
Upon entering the White House on Tuesday, Herzog pledged that he would continue to pursue a consensus-based solution.
“Israeli democracy is sound, strong, and resilient. We are going through pains, we are going through heated debates, we are going through challenging moments,” Herzog said
“I truly believe, and I say this to you, Mr. President, as I have said as head of state to the people of Israel: We shall always seek to find amicable consensus, and I agree with you on that as well.
“I am pursuing that, even in these very moments, through my people as much as we can, in order to find solutions and exit out of this crisis properly,” Herzog said.•