Israeli PM and Biden exchange frosty words over legal overhaul

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday dismissed President Joe Biden’s suggestion that the prime minister back away from a controversial plan to overhaul the legal system, saying the country is making its own decisions.

The exchange was a rare public disagreement between the two close allies and signaled tensions between Israel and the United States over Netanyahu’s judicial changes, which he had postponed following massive protests.

Asked by reporters late Tuesday what he hopes the prime minister will do with the legislation, Biden replied, “I hope he walks away from it.” The president added that Netanyahu’s government “cannot continue down that path” and pushed for compromises on the plan that has Israel in turmoil. The president also sidestepped US Ambassador Thomas Nides’ suggestion that Netanyahu be invited to the White House soon, saying, “No, not in the near future.”

Netanyahu replied that Israel is sovereign and “makes its decisions according to the will of its people and not based on pressure from abroad, including best friends.”

Later Wednesday, Netanyahu struck a more conciliatory tone, saying that while “Israel and the United States have had their occasional differences,” the alliance between them is “unshakable.”

“Nothing can change that,” he said in a speech at the State Department’s Democracy Summit.

The chilly exchange came a day after Netanyahu called for a halt to his government’s controversial legislation “to avoid civil war” after two consecutive days of mass protests that drew tens of thousands of people to the streets of Israel.

“Hopefully the Prime Minister will act in a way that he can try to work out a real compromise. But that remains to be seen,” Biden told reporters as he left North Carolina to return to Washington.

Israeli protest organizers called for a demonstration in support of Biden outside the US embassy building in Tel Aviv on Thursday, while Netanyahu’s allies redoubled their criticism.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a close Netanyahu ally and minister in charge of police, told Israeli Army Radio that Israel is “not another star in the American flag.”

“I expect the US President to understand that point,” he said.

Speaking to public radio station Kan, Education Minister Yoav Kish said that “a friend must not try to impose one another’s internal affairs.”

Netanyahu has had several public disagreements with then-President Barack Obama over Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear issue. In 2015, he addressed Congress behind the back of the White House and railed against an imminent nuclear deal between world powers and Iran.

Nimrod Goren, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, noted that there have been previous trouble spots in US-Israel relations — for example, over the now-defunct deal limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities. In contrast, he said, the White House now appears to be “questioning Netanyahu’s competence as prime minister and whether he is reliable or accountable.”

Netanyahu and his religious and ultranationalist allies announced the judicial overhaul in January just days after forming their government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history.

The proposal has plunged Israel into its worst domestic political crisis in decades. Business leaders, top economists and former security chiefs have all spoken out against the plan, saying it is pushing the country toward dictatorship.

It has also drawn criticism from Israel’s supporters in the US, including American Jewish organizations as well as Democratic congressmen. A Pew poll released last May revealed a growing partisan rift between Israel and the Palestinians, with Democrats — particularly young voters — expressing increasingly positive views of the Palestinians.

The plan would give Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, and his allies the final say in appointing the country’s judges. It would also give Parliament, controlled by its allies, the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit the Court’s ability to review laws.

Critics say the legislation would concentrate power in the hands of the coalition in parliament and upset the balance of checks and balances between branches of government.

Netanyahu said he was “trying to get (it) through a broad consensus” in talks with opposition leaders that began on Tuesday.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition in the Israeli parliament, wrote on Twitter that Israel had been one of the US’s closest allies for decades, but “the most radical government in the country’s history ruined it in three months”.

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