ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 139

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PM tells him: Israel will remain a strong, vibrant democracy

Biden voices concern over judicial overhaul in ‘candid’ phone call with Netanyahu

US president reiterates call for coalition to secure ‘broadest possible’ support for foundational changes to High Court, avoids extending White House invitation long sought by PM

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

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-US vice president Joe Biden speak in front of media prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-US vice president Joe Biden speak in front of media prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

US President Joe Biden raised his concerns with the judicial overhaul being advanced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government during a “candid and constructive” phone call with the premier on Sunday, according to a senior US administration official.

Biden reiterated previously voiced US calls for the Netanyahu government to secure “as broad a consensus as possible” for the fundamental changes aimed at curbing the High Court of Justice’s powers, the administration official said, and also expressed support for President Isaac Herzog’s efforts toward a compromise between the hardline coalition and the wide-ranging opposition.

Herzog has presented an alternative framework to the contentious package of legislation, a proposal that was quickly rejected by the coalition.

“The president underscored his belief that democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship, that democratic societies are strengthened by genuine checks and balances, and that fundamental changes should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support,” according to a White House readout. “The President offered support for efforts underway to forge a compromise on proposed judicial reforms consistent with those core principles.”

According to the Israeli readout, Netanyahu responded to Biden “that Israel was, and will remain, a strong and vibrant democracy.”

The US administration official briefing reporters was asked whether Biden used the call to extend an invitation to Netanyahu to visit the White House. The official avoided directly answering the question, saying that the US “looks forward to getting the two leaders together,” while acknowledging that no date had been set.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul Israel’s judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, March 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

A US official told The Times of Israel last month that plans by Biden to host Netanyahu have been placed on the back burner amid frustration with the new government’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, as well as apprehensions over the judicial overhaul.

The government’s plan, as it stands, will allow the Knesset to override court decisions with the barest majority, and put the selection of all judges in the hands of coalition politicians. Opponents argue it will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters call it a much-needed reform to rein in an activist court.

Before extending an invitation to Netanyahu, the US official said that the administration was waiting to see how the Muslim holy month of Ramadan unfolds. The Ramadan period, which begins in the coming days, has historically added another layer of tension between Israelis and Palestinians.

During this same period, the coalition is slated to blitz legislation through the Knesset aimed at limiting the judiciary’s power. Justice Minister Yariv Levin has said he seeks to enact the entire first phase of his legislation package before the Knesset breaks for Passover at the beginning of next month.

Sunday marked the 80th day since Netanyahu returned to the premiership, and prime ministers have historically visited the White House by now. The absence of an invite has been a sore subject for Netanyahu who reportedly told his cabinet last week that as long as he doesn’t get a sit-down with Biden, almost all other ministers would be barred from scheduling meetings with their American counterparts.

During their call Sunday,  the administration official said Biden and Netanyahu also discussed the US commitment to Israel’s security, threats posed by Iran and outcomes from the regional summit that took place hours earlier in Sharm el-Sheikh Egypt aimed at de-escalating tensions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem ahead of Ramadan, which begins Wednesday.

Biden “reinforced the need for all sides to take urgent, collaborative steps to enhance security coordination, condemn all acts of terrorism, and maintain the viability of a two-state solution,” the White House readout said.

According to the Israeli readout, the 45-minute call focused largely on the Iranian threat — something only mentioned briefly at the bottom of the White House statement — and on “expanding the circle of peace,” a point that wasn’t mentioned at all in the US readout.

Netanyahu’s office said the premier also used the call to brief Biden on the terror attack that took place in the Palestinian town of Huwara hours earlier in which a dual Israeli-American national, a former US Marine, was seriously wounded.

“The prime minister told President Biden that Israel would continue to take action everywhere against terrorists and the architects of terrorism. Netanyahu thanked President Biden for his commitment to Israel’s security,” the Israeli readout added.

Sunday’s call was the second that the two leaders have held since Netanyahu returned to office in December.

Biden also called Netanyahu on November 7, six days after the Likud leader won the latest Knesset election.

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