National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi acknowledged Friday that the judicial overhaul is the reason that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not been invited to the White House by US President Joe Biden.
“It is clear to me that if there was no legal reform, Netanyahu would already have visited the White House,” Hanegbi told Channel 12, before noting that despite the lack of invitation, relations between the two nations remained “extremely close.”
“Today we are seeing intimate relations between Israel and the US, in the intelligence field, in the operational field, and in the field of security like never before,” Hanegbi said.
“Biden is constantly sending senior government officials here,” Hanegbi said, before an analyst on the television panel pointed out that all of those visiting had warned the Netanyahu government against carrying out its contentious plan to drastically weaken the judiciary if it wished to continue to share democratic values.
Substantive talks regarding a long-coveted White House visit for Netanyahu have yet to take place, an Israeli official said this week, speculating that the US is still seeking more clarity regarding the future of the government’s judicial overhaul effort before moving forward.
Last month, Biden urged Netanyahu to “walk away” from his current judicial overhaul legislation, saying he was “very concerned” about the health of Israeli democracy, and warning that Israel “cannot continue down this road.”
Biden also gave an emphatic, “No,” when asked whether he would be inviting Netanyahu to the White House, adding: “Not in the near term.”
Last month, Netanyahu agreed to pause the legislative blitz to radically curb the judiciary’s power in order to allow for compromise negotiations with the opposition.
Those talks have been held several times at President Isaac Herzog’s residence in recent weeks, but they have yet to reach a breakthrough and the coalition may well decide to move forward with parts of the overhaul next month or in June after it has passed a budget.
Biden’s Tuesday announcement that he’ll be seeking re-election will likely further complicate efforts to schedule a Netanyahu visit to the US, with domestic political considerations playing an even larger role in foreign policy decisions as November 2024 approaches.
Hanegbi also appeared to echo warnings from the security establishment that the plans for the overhaul may have worsened the nation’s strategic position — many officials have highlighted the danger of enemies identifying the internal divisions as weakness.
“There is increasing boldness and defiance in all the arenas around us with a feeling that the State of Israel is crumbling,” Hanegbi said, while noting that it was not assessed that an enemy nation would start a war on the basis of Israel’s internal crisis.
“The split in Israel is interpreted by our enemy as a weakness — we will make it clear to them that there is no such weakness,” he said.
“We estimate that the crisis may lead to actions that were not considered before, such as the failed attack in Megiddo,” Hanegbi said, referring to the March bombing which seriously wounded a man and is suspected to have been carried out by a Hezbollah terrorist who crossed the border from Lebanon.
Hanegbi also said that Netanyahu remained committed to thwarting a nuclear Iran, and pursuing diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, which he said was in the interests of both Riyadh and Jerusalem.
The national security adviser said that Washington understood how critical its role is in the region amid Beijing’s efforts to increase influence: “[The Americans] saw that the Chinese mediated between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and understand that China wants to enter the Middle East.”
Netanyahu has openly stated his desire to forge a peace deal with Saudi Arabia, though in recent months since the formation of his government — Israel’s most hardline to date — Riyadh appears to have reinforced its relationship with the Palestinian Authority while also hosting a Hamas delegation, and growing closer to Tehran.
Since forming a government, the Netanyahu coalition has pushed a contentious proposal to weaken the country’s judiciary.
Tensions peaked after Netanyahu announced he was firing Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for publicly calling for a halt to the legislation due to concerns it posed a threat to national security. The announcement sparked spontaneous mass protests, which swelled to a strike announcement by business leaders and the Histadrut labor federation, including the grounding of outgoing flights from Ben Gurion Airport.
Netanyahu then announced a temporary pause to the legislative push, saying he was going to give compromise negotiations a chance, and later said Gallant would remain in his post.
Opponents say the radical legislation would strip away almost all checks and balances from Israel’s system of government, eroding and potentially eliminating its democratic character and leaving minorities unprotected. Proponents say the changes are needed to rein in what they see as an activist court.
Jacob Magid contributed to this report.