WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden on Tuesday urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “walk away” from his current judicial overhaul legislation, saying he was “very concerned” about the health of Israeli democracy, and warning that Israel “cannot continue down this road.”
“Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned. And I’m concerned that they get this straight,” Biden told reporters who asked him about the well-being of Israeli democracy and Netanyahu’s bid to shackle the judiciary.
“They cannot continue down this road. And I’ve sort of made that clear,” he added, speaking before he boarded Air Force One at the Raleigh-Durham airport, in remarks plunging US-Israel ties into open crisis.
“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,” Biden said, emphasizing the word “genuine.”
Biden also gave an emphatic “no” when asked whether he would be inviting Netanyahu to the White House, adding: “Not in the near term.”
Asked whether he had spoken to Netanyahu by phone “in the middle of all this” — an apparent reference to street protests that escalated in the last few days after Netanyahu fired his defense minister — Biden said: “No, I did not. I delivered a message through our ambassador.”
And pressed by a reporter that he might be seen to be interfering in domestic Israeli politics, Biden said: “We don’t want to interfere… Anyway, we’re not interfering. They know my position. They know America’s position. They know the American Jewish position.”
Netanyahu quickly responded by insisting that he was seeking to restore the “proper balance between the three branches of government” via consensus.
Rebuffing Biden’s unprecedentedly grave warning, the prime minister declared that Israel would not make decisions based on overseas pressure, even from “the best of friends.”
Biden: "Like many strong supporters of Israel I'm very concerned. I'm concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road. Netanyahu won't be invited to the White House in the near term" pic.twitter.com/YeuH6QbT3c
— Yosef Yisrael (@yosefyisrael25) March 28, 2023
Landing back in Washington, DC, Biden returned to the issue. Queried as to whether Israeli democracy was secure or the country was at an inflection point, Biden replied: “Well, I don’t know they’re at an inflection point, but I think it’s a difficult spot to be in and they got to work it out.”
And asked by Reuters’ White House correspondent what he wanted Netanyahu to do regarding the current judicial reform law, the president replied: “I hope he walks away from it.”
The extraordinarily critical public comments from the president seemed to go against his administration’s messaging over the past 24 hours, which had seen US officials repeatedly hail Netanyahu’s decision on Monday to suspend his coalition’s legislative effort to radically curb the High Court of Justice’s power and enter negotiations with the opposition to strike a compromise on judicial reform.
In his full statement in response to Biden, Netanyahu wrote: “I have known President Biden for over 40 years, and I appreciate his longstanding commitment to Israel. The alliance between Israel and the United States is unbreakable and always overcomes the occasional disagreements between us.”
Netanyahu justified the planned judicial overhaul, saying: “My administration is committed to strengthening democracy by restoring the proper balance between the three branches of government, which we are striving to achieve via a broad consensus.”
And he directly rejected the president’s critique: “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.”
A Biden administration official, in turn, hit back at Netanyahu, telling The Forward that the prime minister and Ron Dermer, the former Israeli ambassador who is now Netanyahu’s strategic affairs minister and point person in White House dealings, had made a “gross miscalculation” over US reaction to the overhaul.
“There’s no way Jerusalem wanted to be where they are today,” the official said.
“As the president indicated, what happens next is up to Ron and Bibi,” the official said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.
The official told The Forward that right-wing leaders in Israel “can try to smear the Biden administration however they’d like,” but “it’s not helpful.” Two ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud party publicly criticized Biden’s comments shortly after he spoke.
“There’s no need for Bibi to cut the baby in half,” the official added, referring to Netanyahu’s speech on Monday in which he invoked King Solomon’s judgment when announcing that he was pausing the overhaul legislation.
Benny Gantz, the leader of the opposition National Unity party, called Biden’s comments “an urgent wake-up call to the Israeli government,” adding: “Damage to our ties with the US, our closest friend and our most important ally, is a strategic hit.”
Miki Zohar, a Likud minister, responded to the US president’s remarks by tweeting that Biden had “fallen victim to fake news that’s been spread in Israel against our justified legal reform.” He then deleted the tweet “out of respect for our important relationship with our greatest ally, the United States.”
Deepening US criticism
When the overhaul was introduced nearly three months ago, US officials said they didn’t want to weigh in on what they viewed as an internal Israeli matter. But they have gradually moved away from that position, first issuing vague statements, when asked, about the importance of independent institutions, before getting more specific as of late.
Administration officials, including in meetings with Netanyahu, have stressed that the bilateral relationship is based on shared democratic values, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken making a point of highlighting the “shared values” at the heart of US-Israel ties on several occasions during a visit to Israel in January.
Discomfort appeared to peak last week, leading Biden to call Netanyahu to raise the issue personally. The White House then issued another statement of concern over Netanyahu’s Sunday decision to fire Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday evening after Gallant called for the temporary halt of the legislative effort, a freeze which the premier agreed to the next day.
On Monday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby went as far as to say that the legislation being advanced by Netanyahu’s coalition “flies in the face of the whole idea of checks and balances.”
The issue has played a role in the ongoing deterioration of ties between Israel and the US, a senior US official told The Times of Israel last week after Washington summoned Israel’s Ambassador to the US Mike Herzog to the State Department for a private dressing-down over the Knesset’s passing of a law allowing the resettlement of northern West Bank areas evacuated by Israel in 2005.
It is also among the reasons the Biden administration has refrained from extending a White House invitation to Netanyahu, who has traditionally made a trip to the Oval Office by this point in his previous tenures as premier, a second US official said last week.
The question of whether Netanyahu will receive a White House invitation has become a favorite of reporters both in Israel and abroad, and Biden responded with a firm negative when it was put to him on Tuesday.
US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides had been pressed repeatedly on the issue of a Netanyahu visit to DC during a media blitz earlier in the day.
“I’m sure he’ll be coming relatively soon,” Nides told Israel’s Army Radio. “I assume after Passover, obviously no date has been set yet. There’s no question he will come and meet Biden. They will see each other personally, I’m sure, quite soon. Without question, he’ll be coming to the White House as soon as their schedules can be coordinated.”
The remark was picked up widely in the international press, and The New York Times even tweeted incorrectly that an invitation had been extended.
Apparently unhappy with the image of an imminent visit that the media reports were drawing, the White House National Security Council issued a statement lowering expectations: “As Ambassador Nides said, there is no plan for PM Netanyahu to visit Washington. Israeli leaders have a long tradition of visiting Washington, and PM Netanyahu will likely visit at some point.”
In his statement after Biden spoke out, the opposition’s Gantz said: “The prime minister must instruct his negotiating teams for the judicial legislation [in the newly launched dialogue overseen by President Isaac Herzog] to act quickly to fix the situation and preserve democracy.”
He added: “No less importantly, he must act responsibly in diplomacy and security” and immediately announce the revoking of Gallant’s dismissal, in addition to stripping Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich of the Defense Ministry authorities he was given over civilian affairs in the West Bank, another issue which has sparked Washington’s ire.
Moreover, Gantz called on Netanyahu to “not allow [National Security] Minister [Itamar] Ben Gvir’s rampage,” indicating that he opposes the far-right lawmaker’s presence and conduct as a cabinet member.
Biden is a lifelong self-declared Zionist, who declared on a visit last year that Israel “will never dwell alone, because as long as there’s the United States you will never be alone.”
Speaking at the President’s Residence during that July trip, when Israel was led by prime minister Yair Lapid, Biden said “seeing Israel thrive, seeing the wildest dreams of Israel’s founding fathers and mothers grow into a reality that Israel’s children enjoy today, to me is close to miraculous.”
“As I look out at these proud, strong Israelis in the audience,” he continued in that address, “at the nation that made the desert bloom and built the Iron Dome, I see people who are growing more secure, more integrated, more confident and have greater relations with their neighbors. A nation that has forged peace before and can do it again.”
Accepting the Israeli Presidential Medal of Honor from Herzog, Biden called the decoration “one of the greatest honors of my career, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”