Blinken on overhaul: Biden committed to Israel; close partners share their concerns

US secretary of state says president offering same message in public and private conversations with Israel’s leaders; Israeli democracy ‘telling a remarkable story right now’

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a meeting with President Isaac Herzog at the Watergate Hotel, July 18, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a meeting with President Isaac Herzog at the Watergate Hotel, July 18, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that US President Joe Biden is very committed to Israel’s security, and has held a consistent position in public and in private over his concerns about the contentious judicial overhaul.

“The president is saying publicly what he shared privately on several occasions with different leaders in Israel,” Blinken said, when asked about Biden’s comments to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.

After speaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and meeting with President Isaac Herzog this week, the US president noted to Friedman the “enduring protest movement that is demonstrating the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, which must remain the core of our bilateral relationship.”

The interview was reportedly initiated by the US president to refute some of the content of the call with Netanyahu the administration felt was misrepresented by the Prime Minister’s Office.

“President Biden, more than anyone I know, is in his gut committed to Israel’s security, and that will never change,” Blinken said during a talk at the Aspen Security Conference.

“But as such close partners and friends, we share the concerns that we have with Israel. And I think it’s also born of our own experience as democracies. This is what joins us together fundamentally,” Blinken said, according to a US State Department transcript.

US President Joe Biden and President Isaac Herzog speak in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, July 18, 2023. (Chris Kleponis)

“As democracies, we know that when you’re making or trying to make major changes that are going to have a big societal impact, the best way to do it is by trying to build consensus, by trying to build the most support possible, if you want those changes to be durable,” said Blinken, who met with Herzog on Tuesday in Washington DC.

The top US envoy also said that the situation was showing “Israeli democracy in all of its vibrancy.”

“It’s telling a remarkable story right now. That’s playing out, and I’m confident the system will be able to deal effectively with it,” Blinken said.

Demonstrators wave Israeli national flags as they march on the highway near the town of Mevasseret Zion on July 22, 2023, during a multi-day march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to protest the government’s judicial overhaul bill ahead of a vote in the parliament (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Friedman said Thursday he believes the US president’s recent warning that the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul push could harm the US-Israel “special relationship” was conveyed to Netanyahu during their call on Monday.

Friedman spoke to Army Radio, two days after Biden gave an interview to the Times columnist, which itself was a day after the US president and Netanyahu spoke by phone.

Biden also shared his concerns on the judicial overhaul with a visiting President Isaac Herzog during their private meeting in Washington on Tuesday, Friedman said.

The purpose of Biden’s interview was to ensure that Israelis also got that message, the columnist added.

“The president wanted to be sure, having spoken to the prime minister of Israel, and the president of Israel, that he also found a way to speak to the people of Israel, directly, and that was really the motivation for our interview,” Friedman told Army Radio.

According to Friedman, Biden wanted to express that if the judicial overhaul proposals are passed, “you’d be breaking one of the most important bonds between the United States and Israel, our shared values around democratic decision-making and an independent judiciary.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a memorial ceremony for Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky at Mount Herzl, in Jerusalem on July 18, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

It is Biden’s “deep worry” that such a process of reigning in the judiciary cannot be reversed, Friedman said.

Friedman stressed that Washington defends Israel at international courts at The Hague — a job made easier because “Israel has an independent judiciary that can deal with questionable military matters.”

The concern that the overhaul may lead to indictments of Israel Defense Force soldiers and officers at the International Criminal Court has led some military reservists to declare they won’t carry out their duties until the legislation is stopped.

On Friday, 1,142 Israeli Air Force reservists, including more than 400 pilots, issued a letter announcing that they will suspend their volunteer reserve duty in protest of the judicial overhaul.

Biden has repeatedly spoken out against the Netanyahu government’s ongoing judicial overhaul plan, 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.

Israeli military reservists sign a declaration of refusal to report for duty to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Supporters of the plan say it is necessary to rein in what they view as an overly intrusive court.

The coalition is set to pass the first bill in the overhaul package, curtailing judicial oversight for the decisions of elected officials, in the coming days.

Tens of thousands were expected to rally nationwide on Saturday night, with mass protests set to take place in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where a mass march to the Knesset was due to conclude.

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