Biden’s confrontation with Netanyahu has been smoldering for years

President Joe Biden attends the virtual plenary session of the Summit for Democracy on Democracy Deliver on Global Challenges on March 29, 2023 in the South Court Auditorium of the White House in Washington. (Samuel Corum/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden bluntly warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he “cannot continue down this path” of overhauling his country’s judiciary, he sparked the kind of reaction typically voiced by America’s adversaries rather than its allies.

“Israel is a sovereign country that makes its decisions according to the will of its people and not pressure from abroad, including best friends,” Netanyahu said on Wednesday, accusing the US president of interfering in another country’s politics. which is exactly what Biden intended.

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It was a remarkably public outburst of the kind of disagreements that usually take place in private. But there were other factors at work that had been brewing for many years.

Despite their suave facade when it comes to their decades-long relationship and shared commitment to defending Israel, no love is lost between the two leaders. Netanyahu made no particular effort to hide his support for President Donald Trump in the 2020 election, making it clear that he prefers an incumbent who gave him everything he asked for, including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and the fact that he paid little attention to the Palestinians while siding with Israel over its claims to Palestinian territory in the West Bank.

In Biden’s eyes, Netanyahu engaged in perhaps the most daring interference in the US legislative process in modern history when he arrived in Washington in 2015 and addressed Congress, denouncing a then-pending nuclear deal with Iran as a “nightmare” that “will” . anything but guaranteed that Iran will get these nuclear weapons, lots of them.”

At the time, Netanyahu denied interfering in American politics — instead, he stressed, he opposed a deal he believed would weaken Israel’s own security.

Nonetheless, former officials who helped shape US-Israel policy in previous administrations have described the current crisis as extraordinary.

“This is unlike any other crisis in US-Israel relations,” said Aaron David Miller, senior fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former State Department Middle East peace negotiator. “I have never seen a government respond to a new Israeli movement with the intensity, frequency – and at such a high level – as this one.”

Miller and others said that recent weeks had dramatically changed US perceptions of Netanyahu, leaving officials in the Biden administration much less confidence that disputes with the Israeli leader and his right-wing government could be contained.

“What strikes me is that the Biden administration is dealing with a Bibi that is unlike anything that anyone has dealt with before,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who served as US President during the George W. Bush administration -Served as Ambassador to Israel, under a nickname for the Prime Minister.

The conflict escalated after the US ambassador to Israel on Tuesday indicated Netanyahu would soon be welcomed in Washington.

But Biden made it clear that such an invitation was not in sight. When asked if Netanyahu would be invited to the White House, the President replied: “No. Not in the short term.”

Netanyahu recently faced a corruption trial and was ousted in 2021 only to be re-elected as prime minister the next year. He has since aligned himself with ultra-conservative political forces and assembled a far-right coalition that has privately caused Biden administration officials to wonder how much control Netanyahu has over the factions that have made him powerful.

The back-and-forth with Netanyahu put Biden in an awkward position this week when his White House hosted a summit dedicated to promoting democratic ideals even as allied governments continued to test them.

Netanyahu’s critics say his plan to change the composition of Israel’s judiciary is an existential threat to the country’s 75-year democratic tradition. Netanyahu’s announcement that he will suspend a plan to give the government greater control of the Supreme Court – which could allow his administration to end the ongoing corruption trial against him – has left Biden administration officials confident that he has reached a lasting compromise will strive for.

As tensions mounted, Netanyahu and the Biden administration sought to smooth every rift, with John Kirby, a White House spokesman, telling reporters that Netanyahu’s statement was “a lot to like.”

“He talked about looking for a compromise,” Kirby said. “He talked about working towards a consensus here on these possible judicial reforms. He spoke about how unwavering he knows the relationship between the United States and Israel is.”

He added: “And the great thing about friends, and I’m sure you all have friends, you don’t always agree with everything your friend does or says. And the great thing about a deep friendship is that you can be so open with each other.”

In a virtual speech at the White House Democracy Summit on Wednesday, Netanyahu said: “Israel and the United States have had their occasional disagreements, but I want to assure you that the alliance between the world’s largest democracy and the strong, proud, and independent democracy — Israel – in the heart of the Middle East, is unshakable. Nothing can change that.”

He added that his country “will always remain a proud, strong and vibrant democracy as a beacon of freedom and shared prosperity in the heart of the Middle East”.

Biden also faces growing domestic concerns over settlements. On March 9, 92 Democratic members of the House of Representatives sent a letter urging Biden to “use all available diplomatic means to prevent the Israeli government from further damaging the country’s democratic institutions” and a potential two-state solution for the Palestinians.

The dispute settlement, while largely overshadowed by judicial reform, has the potential to further shake relations between the two countries. The Biden government has been pressuring Netanyahu’s coalition to curb settlement activity in the occupied West Bank for months, with little success.

Just last week, the State Department specifically censured Netanyahu’s government for approving a measure that would allow settlers to return to West Bank areas evacuated in 2005, which, if implemented, would be a potentially explosive provocation for the Palestinians.

The United States is “extremely concerned” with the new law, State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said, calling it “particularly provocative and counterproductive” amid a spate of Israeli-Palestinian violence that many experts warn is spiraling into another mass Palestinian uprising or Intifada could break out.

Kurtzer warned that even if Netanyahu buckled the judicial reform plan, in part to placate Biden, he could feel the resulting pressure to take more aggressive moves on settlements and other policies to placate his weak right-wing coalition.

“The reality is that part of the payoff for his coalition could be a big settlement push,” Kurtzer said.

What’s next for Biden depends heavily on how events in Israel unfold, analysts said. Netanyahu may yet agree on a compromise approach to proposed judicial measures, as recommended by Biden, and quell massive demonstrations in his own country. That would remove the issue from the political forefront and allow Biden to return to more private forms of flattery.

If Netanyahu carries on and the demonstrations continue, Biden may be forced to crack down even more — especially as unrest grows among congressional Democrats, who are becoming more vocal about their concerns. Meanwhile, the president has been criticized by Republicans who say he has been unnecessarily harsh on Netanyahu compared to other leaders he has invited to the White House.

“Absolutely disgraceful,” Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wrote on Twitter of Biden’s refusal of the invitation. “Biden happily harbors anti-American radicals like Lula while shunning close American allies like Netanyahu,” Cruz said, referring to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil, who has long accused US officials of seeking to politically undermine him. And Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, announced plans to visit Israel in late April.

On Wednesday, a White House spokesman stressed that officials within the administration and the Israeli government were in regular contact despite the clapperboard. The official then reiterated Biden’s hope that Israelis would find a compromise on judicial reform, adding that the United States would not interfere in Israeli domestic politics.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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