US-Israel tensions over judicial overhaul burst into open

By Isabel Kershner

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel responded defiantly on Wednesday (29) to sharp criticism from President Joe Biden over his government’s contentious judicial overhaul plan, declaring that Israel was “a sovereign country” that would make its own decisions.

As weeks of quiet diplomatic pressure burst into a rare open dispute between the allies, Netanyahu’s opponents in Israel accused him of endangering the longstanding and critical relationship with the United States that could harm the country’s ability to face daunting security challenges, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“I have known President Biden for over 40 years, and I appreciate his longstanding commitment to Israel,” Netanyahu said in a statement posted in English on Twitter. But, 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.”

Netanyahu’s remarks, first issued by his office at the unusual time of about 1:00 a.m. in Israel, came after Biden told reporters that he was “very concerned” about the events in Israel. The president’s comments came after suggestions on Tuesday (28) by the US ambassador to Israel that Netanyahu would be welcome in Washington sometime soon.

But Biden made it clear that a much coveted invitation was not about to be issued. When asked whether Netanyahu would be invited to the White House, the president replied bluntly: “No. Not in the near term.”

The hard-right coalition led by Netanyahu has sought to exert more political control over Israel’s Supreme Court, setting off the worst domestic crisis in decades.

“They cannot continue down this road — I’ve sort of made that clear,” Biden said. “Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can try to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen.”

The extraordinary exchange came after Netanyahu on Monday (27) delayed his effort to push the judicial plan through Parliament to allow for dialogue, and hours after negotiating teams for the government coalition and the opposition held a preliminary meeting hosted by Israel’s mostly ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog.

The judicial overhaul has divided the country between those who see it as a power grab by the ruling majority that will destroy Israeli democracy and those mainly on the right who have long viewed the Supreme Court as overactive and want to give more power to the elected legislature.

The plan set off weeks of mass protests and turmoil, culminating in a nationwide work stoppage that brought many services to a halt and snarled air traffic on Monday after Netanyahu summarily dismissed his defence minister, who had called for a delay in the legislation to allow for talks and compromise.

Netanyahu’s announcement of the delay largely calmed the stormy atmosphere in Israel.

But opponents of the judicial overhaul plan remain wary of Netanyahu’s motives, not least because the prime minister is standing trial on corruption charges. Critics say he could ultimately use the planned judicial changes to extricate himself from his legal troubles. Netanyahu insists that he has no such intention and denies wrongdoing.

Organizers of the main weekly anti-government protests have urged people not to give up and warned that the announcement of a delay was a tactic only meant to quell the civil unrest.

Experts say that the most contentious part of the bill — which gives the governing coalition more influence over the selection of Supreme Court judges and allows it to choose the next president of the top court — could be brought any time for a quick final approval in Parliament.

“We are one afternoon away” from the completion of “the most important part of the judicial overhaul,” said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research group that opposes the coalition’s plan and is involved in the efforts to find a broader consensus and compromise.

The delay of the plan had also been expected to ease tensions with Washington. But Biden’s blunt remarks indicated that the United States remained guarded about Netanyahu’s plans and would wait to see the outcome of the negotiations in Israel in the coming weeks.

In a round of interviews with Israeli news media outlets on Tuesday, the US ambassador to Israel, Thomas R. Nides, had seemed to signal the Biden administration’s approval of Netanyahu’s decision to delay the judicial legislation, telling Israeli television that it was “something that we welcome and we appreciate.”

Asked if Netanyahu would be invited to the White House, Nides said he believed such a visit would take place “soon”, or “relatively soon”.

In an accidental twist of timing, Netanyahu on Wednesday participated virtually in the Summit for Democracy, which is co-hosted by the United States.

Describing Israel as “a beacon of liberty and shared prosperity in the heart of the Middle East,” he said: “You may have noticed Israel is undergoing, in its robust democracy, a very intensive public debate, and the debate is how do we ensure a proper democracy? Democracy means the will of the people as expressed by a majority, and it also means protection of civil rights, individual rights. It’s the balance between the two.”

He added that he thought “that balance can be achieved,” referring to the negotiations underway in Israel, and insisted that “Israel was, is, and will always remain a proud, strong and vibrant democracy.”

Biden’s criticism and Netanyahu’s response have set off a political uproar in Israel, even as Herzog, the president, continued meetings on Wednesday morning with representatives of some of the smaller opposition parties not directly involved in the negotiations.

Members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition denounced Biden’s remarks, asserting that the US president had been taken in by “fake news”.

Miki Zohar, the minister of culture and sport from Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, wrote on Twitter, “It’s sad that President Biden has also fallen victim to the fake news that gets disseminated in Israel against our justified judicial reform.”

Zohar soon deleted that tweet and posted a new one, saying he had removed his earlier message “out of respect for our important relations with our greatest ally, the United States.” But he continued, “It is heartbreaking to see how much damage is caused to Israel by all the fake news that has been spread about our justified judicial reform.”

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right minister of national security, told Israel’s Army Radio on Wednesday that Biden and his administration needed “to understand that Israel is an independent country. It is not just another star on the American flag.”

He added: “We are a democracy, and I expect the president of the United States to understand this point.”

Opposition leaders warned that Netanyahu had caused unparalleled damage to relations with the administration in the three months since he returned to power.

Benny Gantz, the centrist leader of the opposition National Unity party and a former minister of defence and military chief, excoriated Netanyahu for mishandling Israel’s relationship with the United States.

“President Biden sent an urgent wake-up call to the Israeli government tonight,” Gantz wrote on Twitter. “Damaging relations with the United States, our best friend and our most important ally, is a strategic attack. The prime minister must guide his negotiating teams regarding the judicial legislation, act quickly to repair the situation and preserve the Israeli democracy that is at the basis of these values.”

Gantz added that Netanyahu must display “political and security responsibility” and announce that the defence minister he fired, but whose dismissal has not yet taken effect, will remain in his post.

Critics of the prime minister also noted that Netanyahu had shown no qualms about blatantly wading into American internal affairs in 2015 when, in a challenge to the Obama administration, he addressed a joint meeting of Congress and denounced negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, calling it a “bad deal.”

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has long prided himself on being the country’s most experienced leader in handling security and diplomacy. Israeli political pundits had been noting in recent weeks the unusual delay in the Biden administration’s extension of an invitation to visit Washington.

After 18 months in the opposition, Netanyahu won an election in November and his coalition, the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israel’s history, was sworn in late last year.

-New York Times



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