Analysis'We still want to work with him, but something's gotta give'

For months, PM ignored mounting US concerns; Biden decided to drive the point home

US official admits some in administration surprised by president’s off-the-cuff remarks that Israel ‘can’t continue down this road,’ but says Netanyahu left him little choice

Jacob Magid

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

US President Joe Biden talks with reporters be he boards Air Force One at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, Tuesday, March 28, 2023, en route to Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
US President Joe Biden talks with reporters be he boards Air Force One at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, Tuesday, March 28, 2023, en route to Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON — Initial statements from Biden administration officials in the first 24 hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday that he would be temporarily pausing efforts to overhaul the judiciary seemed to indicate that US-Israel ties had finally turned a corner after months of deterioration.

One after another, White House and State Department spokespeople issued statements lauding Netanyahu’s decision to give negotiations with the opposition on judicial reform a chance. “We welcome this announcement as an opportunity to create additional time and space for compromise. [This] is precisely what we have been calling for,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said late Monday, echoing remarks by National Security Council spokesman John Kirby and State Department spokesman Vedant Patel.

US Ambassador Tom Nides even began talking on Tuesday about a White House visit for Netanyahu “relatively soon,” with the premier reportedly irate over the fact that he has yet to receive such an invitation.

But then came a more off-the-cuff opportunity for comment on Tuesday afternoon when President Joe Biden was stopped by reporters as he boarded Air Force One at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Without a prepared statement in front of him, the president revealed how he and his administration truly feel about Netanyahu’s effort to radically curb the independence and powers of the High Court of Justice — pause or no pause — and about the stability of Israeli democracy.

“Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned. And I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road,” he said. “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.”

And driving home the turmoil in the countries’ ties, Biden, asked whether the premier would be getting that White House invite, made the situation clear: “No… not in the near term.”

Israeli officials were quick to argue last week that relations with the US had not reached a breaking point after the Biden administration urgently called Israel’s ambassador to the State Department over the Knesset’s passing of the so-called Disengagement Cancellation Law, in what was the first such dress-down since 2010.

But it was nearly impossible to deny the crisis after Biden spoke on Tuesday, which is likely what led to Netanyahu’s decision not to wait until the morning to respond, and instead to issue an English-language statement at nearly 1 a.m. local time.

“Israel is a sovereign country [that] makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends,” Netanyahu said, in a response that likely added more fuel to the fire.

A US official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Times of Israel that some in the administration were “surprised” by Biden’s remarks, appearing to confirm that the president had indeed gone off message.

However, once Netanyahu responded the way he did — though the premier prefaced his statement by expressing his appreciation for Biden’s longstanding commitment to Israel — any discomfort that might have been felt quickly dissipated.

Right-wing leaders in Israel “can try to smear [us] however they’d like, [but] it’s not helpful,” a Biden administration official told The Forward, adding that Netanyahu and his aides had made a “gross miscalculation” regarding the US position on the overhaul.

Meanwhile, the US official who spoke with The Times of Israel stressed that the administration “really [didn’t] want to be where we are today.”

“We wanted to work with Bibi toward our common goals,” the official said, referring to boosting bilateral cooperation against the Iranian nuclear threat and further integrating Israel in the region. “We still want to work with him.”

“But something’s got to give, and the signals we’ve been getting from [Jerusalem], even after yesterday’s [overhaul pause] announcement from the prime minister, have led [us] to believe that our messages have still not been sinking in,” the US official added.

While not agreeing with Biden’s decision to voice his frustration in the manner in which he did on Tuesday, an Israeli diplomat — also speaking on condition of anonymity — said Jerusalem has been well aware that the judicial overhaul and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more broadly “were not issues that the administration wanted to deal with.”

“Their foreign policy priorities are elsewhere, but they feel dragged back toward our issues for a variety of reasons — some their doing and some our doing,” the Israeli diplomat said.

Things haven’t deteriorated to the “chickenshit” level of name-calling that colored the bilateral relationship during the Obama administration — “and they likely never will, given who Biden is and who he’s surrounded himself with,” the Israeli diplomat clarified.

But the animosity appears to be growing, particularly on the Israeli side.

US President Joe Biden meets then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (right) at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. At left is Secretary of State Antony Blinken; 2nd left is US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. (GPO)

Briefing reporters during Netanyahu’s recent visit to Rome earlier this month, a “senior Israeli official” blamed the Biden administration’s “weakness” for the Iran-Saudi Arabia normalization agreement.

Netanyahu’s son Yair — who shares a roof with the prime minister and is known to have his ear — has been sharing social media posts over the past week claiming that the State Department is bankrolling the anti-overhaul protests in order to topple his father so that the US can re-enter the Iran nuclear deal.

The claims have so irked US officials in Washington that they had the State Department issue a detailed statement refuting them as “demonstrably false.” Nides called them “absurd” on Tuesday.

Still, the US has thus far preferred to largely suffice with stern rhetoric to convey its messages, rather than decisive actions that would draw significant pushback from domestic and Israeli audiences.

It has avoided reopening the US Consulate in Jerusalem to service the Palestinians, and it has refrained from rolling back the previous administration’s “Pompeo doctrine” that gave a nod of legitimacy to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Even when the Biden administration has gone beyond rhetoric, it has done so very gingerly.

Then US President Barack Obama listens to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, foreground, as he speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, November 9, 2015. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

It did back a symbolic joint statement in the UN Security Council against Israeli settlement building last month, but only after blocking a resolution of the binding nature that former president Barack Obama let through in 2016.

It called in Israeli Ambassador Mike Herzog to the State Department over the Disengagement Cancellation Law, but it avoided characterizing the move as a summoning, which would have given it far more diplomatic weight.

But as the US official noted, the feeling in Washington is that its concerns were still not resonating in Jerusalem.

This feeling was further fueled by Netanyahu’s decision to promise far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir control over a “national guard,” which critics warned could be used to target Arab Israelis and Palestinians, the US official said.

And so Biden chose to put an end to the polite dodging in which his aides had been engaged for the past several weeks on Netanyahu’s long-stalled invitation.

It leaves Netanyahu increasingly isolated. The trips to Europe Netanyahu has made in recent weeks were largely overshadowed by the criticism he received from the hosting leaders and the protests that follow him everywhere he goes. In the UK last week, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak skipped the traditional photo op yet still made a point of including his concerns regarding the overhaul in the readout from their meeting.

The United Arab Emirates also continues to freeze Netanyahu out and the rest of Israel’s Arab allies have not allowed a week to go by without issuing a condemnation of sorts.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give a joint press conference following talks at the Chancellery in Berlin on March 16, 2023. (Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Even inside Israel, Netanyahu’s freedom of movement has become limited by mass protests anywhere he appears. It remains to be seen whether these continue amid the pause for negotiations. He has also been forced to skip his regular speeches at military ceremonies, apparently fearing that with growing unrest inside the army, he is less than welcome at such gatherings.

And yet, Biden found it necessary to drive the point home further on Tuesday, raising objections in his own voice for the first time, apparently believing the statement he issued last month and the call he put in to Netanyahu last week had been insufficient.

Pausing the radical legislative package is not enough, in his eyes. Biden hopes it will be replaced with proposals that have the broad consensus support that the current version undoubtedly lacks.

“Hopefully the prime minister will act… to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen,” Biden said. He emphasized the word “genuine” — a quality that Netanyahu’s rivals have claimed is lacking from the premier’s approach to the compromise negotiations.

Left to right: President Isaac Herzog, US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid attend the Maccabiah opening ceremony at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium on July 14, 2022. (Screenshot)

Nonetheless, Biden opened his remarks by stressing that he spoke “as a strong supporter of Israel.” He dismissed the notion that he was seeking to interfere in the domestic Israeli matter and indicated that he was voicing a position shared by American Jewry as well, not to mention Republican lawmakers, who began raising their own concerns on Tuesday as well.

And he spoke as someone who has long identified as a Zionist — one who has often said that “If there were no Israel, we’d have to invent one.”

But having followed the pandemonium sweeping through the Jewish state over the past three months, it’s unlikely that Netanyahu’s Israel is the one Biden had in mind.

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