PM tells Biden he'll seek more support for rest of overhaul

Biden agrees to meet Netanyahu in US, stresses need for consensus on judicial reform

White House readout of their first call since March does not mention an invite, but US spokesman confirms planned meeting; neither side says where or exactly when it will occur

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

FILE: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to US President Joe Biden on February 17, 2021. (Prime Minister's Office)
FILE: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to US President Joe Biden on February 17, 2021. (Prime Minister's Office)

US President Joe Biden on Monday agreed to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the US, after seven months of refraining from inviting him due to Washington’s ongoing displeasure with the hardline Israeli coalition’s judicial overhaul plans and Jerusalem’s policies in the West Bank.

The planned meeting was announced by Netanyahu’s office on Monday evening, after what it said was “a warm and long” phone call between the two leaders. It was confirmed by the White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby.

Strikingly, however, no invitation was mentioned in the White House readout of their call. The White House statement emphasized, among other matters, the US president’s ongoing concern about the Netanyahu coalition’s judicial overhaul moves. It noted that Biden repeated “the need for the broadest possible consensus” in Israel over judicial reform, and “that shared democratic values have always been and must remain a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship.”

Biden had declared in late March that he would not be inviting Netanyahu “in the near term,” saying he was “very concerned” about the health of Israeli democracy amid the judicial overhaul plans pushed by the coalition since it took office in December.

Netanyahu’s office did not specify when or where the meeting would take place, beyond saying it would happen in the “near” future. “President Biden invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to meet in the near future. The prime minister accepted the invitation and it was agreed that Israeli and American teams would coordinate the details of the meeting,” the Israeli statement said.

Netanyahu would want the meeting to take place at the White House, but speculation has grown in recent weeks that the two could sit down on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s high-level meet in September, when both leaders are expected to be in New York.

Kirby said there would be a meeting “sometime in the fall,” but did not specify whether it would be at the White House when asked. “They have agreed that they will meet, probably before the end of this year, and all the details of the wheres and whens are still being worked out,” he said.

He stressed: “This doesn’t mean we have less concerns about the judicial reform or about the extremists in the Israeli government. We remain concerned.”

During the phone call, the Israeli readout said, Netanyahu updated Biden on the legislation he said “is to approved next week by the Knesset” — a bill, fiercely opposed by the opposition, that will remove judicial oversight over the reasonableness of governmental decisions. Netanyahu told Biden he aims to use the summer parliamentary recess to build more support for “the remaining parts of the process.”

He made similar assurances to the White House after he agreed to pause the overhaul legislation in late March in order to engage in negotiations with the opposition, brokered by President Isaac Herzog, that sought to reach compromises on judicial reform.

But those talks fell apart last month and the Netanyahu government decided to move ahead with the overhaul unilaterally, starting with the “reasonableness” legislation. The decision has revamped widespread protests across Israel that have begun to spread into the military, where hundreds and possibly thousands, of active reservists in some of the IDF’s most elite units are threatening to stop volunteering if the overhaul continues to advance.

Netanyahu and Biden also discussed advancing measures to restore calm in the West Bank via the regional meetings that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have held this year in Aqaba, Jordan and Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, according to the Israeli readout. A third meeting was supposed to take place in the spring but never materialized amid further deteriorations in Jerusalem’s ties with Ramallah. The White House said it looked forward to another meeting being held soon, though.

Biden stressed the need for Israel “to take measures to maintain the viability of a two-state solution and improve the security situation in the West Bank,” the White House said, re-emphasizing its support for a paradigm that Netanyahu and his government do not back.

Biden welcomed the recent Israeli cabinet decision principally backing strengthening the Palestinian Authority as well as recent steps by the PA to reassert security control in Jenin and other areas, the White House said.

The US president “expressed concern about continued settlement growth and call[ed] on all parties to refrain from further unilateral measures.” The Netanyahu government has advanced more settlement construction in six months than any government has in a calendar year, while failing to clamp down on settler violence and wildcat Israeli construction that the US views as inhibiting prospects for a two-state solution.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets with then US vice president Joe Biden at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The two leaders also discussed efforts to expand Israel’s integration in the region and to combat the Iranian nuclear threat, both offices said.

The White House said Biden wished Netanyahu good health after the latter’s hospitalization over the weekend, underscored his commitment to Israel’s security and condemned recent acts of terror against Israeli civilians.

While the president’s direct engagement with Netanyahu ostensibly indicates a desire by Washington to calm the waters, after Biden last week called members of the Israeli government some of the “the most extreme” he has ever seen, the Axios news site had said ahead of the call that the US president was planning to use the conversation in order to raise concerns regarding Jerusalem’s renewed advancement of its judicial overhaul.

Monday’s conversation was the third between the two leaders since Netanyahu returned to power on December 29. The last time they spoke was in March when Biden also raised alarm regarding the overhaul.

The US has spoken out against the legislative package aimed at radically curbing the High Court of Justice’s powers, saying such fundamental reforms should only be passed with broad support and must maintain the strength of Israel’s democratic institutions.

The overhaul is what led Biden to announce in late March that Netanyahu would not receive an invite to the White House in the “near term.” But during a CNN interview last week the president appeared to focus his concern on the hardline nature of the government as well as its policies in the West Bank.

People protest against the government’s judicial overhaul plans, in Jerusalem, on July 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The call came a day before Herzog will land in Washington and meet Biden at the White House for the second time in less than nine months. That visit is an apparent signal that the administration believes the US relationship with Israel transcends the government of the day.

Earlier Monday, Opposition leader Yair Lapid declared that “the United States is no longer our closest ally” due to the Netanyahu government’s “disastrous” policies.

And on Sunday, Channel 13 reported that Netanyahu lashed out at Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog during a Jerusalem meeting last week, over the government’s strained ties with the Biden administration.

The report cited diplomatic sources saying Netanyahu is displeased by President Herzog’s trip and told the ambassador — the president’s brother — that he believed it would offer the White House legitimacy to avoid inviting the premier in the near future.

US President Joe Biden and President Isaac Herzog, during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Oct. 26, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Netanyahu’s office has sought to downplay the divide, saying last week that “it is no secret that we have disagreements with the US government around establishing a Palestinian state, returning to the dangerous nuclear agreement with Iran, and PM Netanyahu’s stance against the ‘no surprises’ policy around Israeli actions against Iran. However, the ties between Israel and the US have grown close over the course of decades, and security cooperation has reached an all-time high under Prime Minister Netanyahu’s leadership.”

But after New York Times columnist Tom Friedman penned an op-ed saying that the administration has begun “reassessing” its ties to the Netanyahu government, the White House sufficed by issuing a response that it was not engaged in a “formal” reset, leaving open the possibility that it has started reviewing the relationship in an unofficial manner.

In a move that may further irk the Biden administration, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen is considering appointing Joe Zevuloni, an Israeli-American supporter of former US president Donald Trump, as a special envoy to the United States, the Walla news site reported Sunday.

While in Washington on Tuesday, Herzog will meet separately with Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken before touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture. On Wednesday, he will meet with White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan before giving an address to a joint session of Congress and meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris. He will then spend Thursday, Friday and Saturday in New York City where he will meet UN chief Antonio Guterres, NY Governor Kathy Hochul, NYC Mayor Eric Adams, and Jewish community leaders, including a reception thrown by the UJA-Federation of New York.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report

Most Popular
read more: