White House: Friedman piece 'directly quoted the president'

Biden’s NYT remarks meant to refute Netanyahu’s portrayal of conversation — report

Administration said to be displeased over PMO readout of call with president this week; Biden again cautions against judicial overhaul without broad consensus

US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in the Oval Office at the White House on July 18, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/AFP)
US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in the Oval Office at the White House on July 18, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/AFP)

US President Joe Biden’s direct remarks on Tuesday to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman on his opposition to the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul efforts and his warning they could harm the US-Israel “special relationship,” were reportedly made to refute some of the content of the call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week the administration felt was misrepresented by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Hebrew-language news site Walla reported that the Biden administration was displeased with how Netanyahu’s office portrayed their Monday conversation and wanted to “correct” some of the impressions from the Israeli readout.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday in a press briefing that Friedman’s piece “directly quoted the president” and that Biden’s “comments in the article stand for [themselves].”

The president, she said, has been “very clear” about the need for consensus. “When it comes to our relationship with Israel, the US relationship with Israel…at the core is democratic values, and that’s what we believe. And any changes — any major changes certainly — need…a broad consensus,” added Jean-Pierre.

In its readout of Monday’s call, the prime minister’s office described “a warm and long” conversation between the two leaders and said Biden had agreed to meet with Netanyahu, following seven months of refraining from inviting him to Washington over the administration’s ongoing displeasure with the hardline coalition’s judicial overhaul plans and Jerusalem’s policies in the West Bank.

Notably, no invitation was mentioned in the White House readout of the call, which emphasized, among other matters, the US president’s ongoing concern about the judicial overhaul and “the need for the broadest possible consensus.”

Biden said “shared democratic values have always been and must remain a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship,” according to the readout.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 19, 2023. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Speaking to Friedman, the president said the judicial overhaul plan was “obviously an area about which Israelis have strong views, including in an enduring protest movement that is demonstrating the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, which must remain the core of our bilateral relationship.”

“Finding consensus on controversial areas of policy means taking the time you need,” said Biden. “For significant changes, that’s essential. So my recommendation to Israeli leaders is not to rush. I believe the best outcome is to continue to seek the broadest possible consensus here.

Biden’s remarks to Friedman were meant to clearly present the president’s opposition on the Netanyahu government’s judicial revamp, according to Walla.

The administration was also reportedly miffed after National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi on Wednesday responded to Friedman’s column, saying that the remarks attributed to Biden “were not at all mentioned in the conversation” between the president and Netanyahu, though Friedman’s piece did not imply that they had been.

Hanegbi said the phone call “as depicted by both sides, was ‘positive, warm, and constructive,’” and added that the government would see through its current legislative push to severely curtail judicial review over the reasonableness of governmental decisions next week, before “pursuing broad public consensus regarding the remainder of the process” during the Knesset’s summer recess.

The coalition is seeking to change the representation on the panel that chooses court judges, giving the government a majority say. According to Hanegbi, Netanyahu told Biden that during the Knesset recess he would make great efforts to reach “broad public consensus” on how judges are selected.

An unnamed senior US official told Walla that the administration “wanted to make clear that the fact Biden spoke with Bibi [Netanyahu] about a possible meeting doesn’t mean we don’t care about the judicial overhaul. They should make no mistake – Biden has strong feelings about this and made it clear in a 1,000 ways.”

Biden has repeatedly spoken out against the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul plans, which has been met with months of mass protests from critics who say it will radically weaken the court’s power to act as a check and balance against the Knesset, and dangerously erode Israel’s democratic foundations.

In addition to protesters blocking roads and disrupting public transportation, pushback against the overhaul has seen groups of military reservists threaten to stop volunteering for special key duties — including piloting fighter jets — if the legislation process continues. Likewise, business leaders and medical staff have called strikes to protest the overhaul.

In his column on Tuesday, Friedman wrote that the US president was “trying to be respectful of Israel’s right to choose its own path without its American ally intervening in an internal matter,” while at the same time making clear how the developments could affect Israel’s relations with the US.

Anti-overhaul activists protest against the government’s judicial overhaul, near the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on July 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“He is basically pleading with Netanyahu and his supporters to understand: If we are not seen to share that democratic value, it will be difficult to sustain the special relationship that Israel and America have enjoyed for the last 75 years for another 75 years,” Friedman wrote.

“Message to Israelis, right, left and center: Joe Biden may be the last pro-Israel Democratic president. You ignore his sincere concerns at your peril,” the columnist said.

Biden’s remarks to Friedman came after his meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who is currently on a visit to Washington and gave an address before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.

After weighing in several times in recent months, Biden notably made no mention of the judicial overhaul issue during his comments to the press when he met with Herzog.

The US president kept his remarks overwhelmingly positive, highlighting his commitment to the Jewish state and to the US-Israel relationship before running through a brief list of accomplishments in the Middle East.

Privately, though, Biden told Herzog that it was vital for coalition and opposition leaders to strike a compromise on judicial reform, according to an Israeli official who shared details with reporters after the meeting on condition of anonymity.

President Joe Biden meets with Israel’s President Isaac Herzog in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Herzog told Biden that he was working to find common ground between the parties and that he believes in negotiations he has championed, but which are currently frozen, the Israeli official said.

The talks fell apart last month and the government has since resumed advancement of the overhaul, readying to pass the first piece of legislation from the controversial package next week and reanimating the protest movement in the process.

Herzog told reporters outside the White House after the meeting that Biden’s decision to ask about the overhaul wasn’t intended to “annoy” Israel, but was rather a result of his “deep concern” for the country’s democracy. Herzog’s assertion appeared to push back against some of Netanyahu’s allies, who have lashed out or dismissed criticism of the overhaul from the US and other allies as inappropriate interventions in Israel’s internal affairs.

Jacob Magid and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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