Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on Wednesday criticized US Vice President Kamala Harris after she stressed the importance of an independent judiciary at an event hosted by the Israeli embassy in Washington.
The not-so-subtle allusion by Harris on Tuesday to the Biden administration’s opposition to efforts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government to radically curb the power of the judiciary was included in a 14-minute speech that was largely effusive in its praise of Israel.
“If we were to ask Kamala Harris what bothers her about the reform, she wouldn’t be able to name a single clause,” Cohen told Kan news in response.
“In the places I visit I have asked people what is bothering them, and nobody can put their finger on what is bothering them,” said Cohen, who has not been to the United States since the government announced its contentious overhaul plan earlier this year.
“I don’t know if [Harris] read the law or not — my assessment is that she hasn’t,” Cohen said of the US vice president, who prior to her current position had a long legal career, including six years as the attorney general of California.
In response, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides told Channel 12 news that Harris’s presence at the Israeli embassy event spoke to the strength of the relations between the two nations.
“I have respect for FM Cohen, but the VP said things the administration says [at] every opportunity regarding the shared values and policies. Harris is a strong supporter of Israel,” Nides said.
As the diplomatic storm grew, Cohen issued a statement in both English and Hebrew in which he said he had “deep respect” for Harris.
“I have deep respect for our ally the United States of America and for Vice President Harris, a true friend of Israel,” Cohen said. “Israel’s legal reform is an internal issue that is currently in the process of consolidation and dialogue. The State of Israel will continue to be democratic and liberal, as it has always been.”
Harris made her comment in support of an independent judiciary at an event marking the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence.
“Under President Joe Biden and our administration, America will continue to stand for the values that have been the bedrock of the US-Israel relationship, which include continuing to strengthen our democracies, which… are both built on strong institutions, checks and balances — and I’ll add an independent judiciary,” Harris said to applause from many of the 2,000 people listening in the auditorium of the National Building Museum.
There was no applause, however, from far-right Religious Zionism lawmaker Simcha Rothman, one of the architects of the judicial revamp, who has been in the US for the past several days.
MK Simcha Rothman – the father of Israel’s judicial overhaul – watching Vice President Kamala Harris stress the importance of an independent judiciary pic.twitter.com/1WX3yBDRPy
— Ben Samuels (@Bsamuels0) June 6, 2023
Rothman, who did not appear on the official guest list of the event, was approached by a woman who charged that he had not been invited.
“We won’t let you destroy our life here. They told you not to come, right? So why [are you here]?” she said to Rothman.
Rothman was later filmed recounting the incident to someone: “Tell me, are you stupid? Who are you even, miss? She thinks the country belongs to her.”
In a statement, the embassy clarified that it found out that Rothman was in Washington and was told to invite him by the Foreign Ministry at the last minute.
“We can’t be expected to boycott an Israeli public representative at an official Israeli Independence Day function,” the statement read.
The Biden administration has largely eased up on its criticism of the judicial overhaul since Netanyahu agreed to temporarily pause the effort in late March in order to engage in compromise negotiations with the opposition.
The talks, under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog, are aimed at securing a consensus for a more moderate version than the initial proposals unveiled by Justice Minister Yariv Levin in January, which set off mass protests and fierce public backlash.
With a compromise still apparently not within reach, the Biden administration has held off on extending an invitation for Netanyahu to visit the White House.