ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Gantz: PM carrying out 'strategic attack' on ties with US

American, Israeli officials downplay columnist’s claim US reassessing ties with Israel

A day after NY Times’s Thomas Friedman says White House revisiting relationship, US officials say no such ‘formal’ process is underway, though Washington is ‘worried’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, June 18, 2023. (Amit Shabi/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, June 18, 2023. (Amit Shabi/Pool)

A day after New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman warned in a column that the Biden administration is reassessing its ties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, a senior Israeli official responded on Wednesday that “we are not aware of any decision about ‘reassessment’ by the US government.”

A White House National Security Council spokesperson also denied the matter, saying “There is no talk of some kind of formal reassessment.”

However, an unidentified official told Channel 12 that Washington was certainly “worried by Netanyahu. We don’t understand where he’s headed or why he’s letting extremists in the government set the tone, while advancing judicial legislation unilaterally despite his clear promise to [President Joe] Biden.”

Speaking earlier, the Israeli official said that even if Biden were reassessing ties, it would not be anything new in the history of the bilateral relationship, pointing at ostensibly similar decisions by Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

“It is no secret that we have disagreements with the US government around establishing a Palestinian state, returning to the dangerous nuclear agreement with Iran, and PM Netanyahu’s stance against the ‘no surprises’ policy around Israeli actions against Iran,” continued the official in a statement.

The official stressed that “the ties between Israel and the US have grown close over the course of decades, and security cooperation has reached an all-time high under Prime Minister Netanyahu’s leadership.”

“Prime Minister Netanyahu will make sure this trend continues.”

The official did not mention US President Joe Biden by name in the statement.

Illustrative: US president Ronald Reagan, left, and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, 1981. ( AP)

Friedman wrote that Biden believes the government is using its judicial overhaul push as a smokescreen to engage “in unprecedented radical behavior… that is undermining our shared interests with Israel, our shared values and the vitally important shared fiction about the status of the West Bank that has kept peace hopes there just barely alive.”

Beyond the domestic implications for Israel, Friedman warned that the overhaul was endangering “shared interests” between Israel and the US, citing as an example “the shared fiction that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was only temporary and one day there could be a two-state solution.”

Friedman’s columns are understood to be closely read by Biden.

US President Joe Biden (R) embraces President Isaac Herzog (L) during the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on July 14, 2022. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

Despite high-level visits to Israel by top US defense officials, the political relationship between Washington and Jerusalem is under undeniable strain. Biden has not invited Netanyahu to the White House, and senior US officials criticize Israel’s government on settlements and judicial reform.

This week, Biden called Israel’s government “one of the most extreme” he’s ever seen and departing Ambassador Tom Nides remarked that the US is seeking to prevent Israel from “going off the rails.”

Former defense minister and opposition National Unity party head Benny Gantz accused Netanyahu of carrying out “a strategic terror attack on relations with the US.”

National Unity leader MK Benny Gantz arrives at an anti-government protest in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (Naomi Lanzkron/Times of Israel)

“It’s playing with fire at the expense of Israelis citizens,” he told the Ynet news outlet.

Netanyahu’s coalition includes far-right lawmakers Bezalel Smotrich, who serves as finance minister, and Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister, both of whom vowed to oppose a series of measures aimed at bolstering the PA and have voiced fierce opposition to the prospect of a Palestinian state, pushing for settlement expansion and more Israeli control in the West Bank.

Some Netanyahu allies accuse opposition figures of intentionally straining the relationship to harm the prime minister.

Culture and Sport Minister Miki Zohar at his office in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar said on Wednesday that he believes the opposition is feeding “lies” about the government’s policies to the White House.

“They operate in the corridors of the US government,” he said in a radio interview with Kan news, “and tell them lies and nonsense about the State of Israel and its conduct – and the American government is disturbed because they hear this false information.”

“If Yair Lapid has responsibility for the State of Israel as the head of the opposition, and Benny Gantz does as a party within the opposition that has great potential according to the polls, there is a responsibility towards the state – they should get up in the morning and do everything so that Israel’s relationship with the United States is good,” he continued.

On Tuesday, Diaspora Affairs and Social Equality Minister Amichai Chikli alleged that Biden’s recent criticisms had been coordinated with Opposition Leader Yair Lapid and former prime minister Ehud Barak.

“Every time they [overhaul opponents] want to fan the flames, all of a sudden there’s a comment from the direction of the [US] president,” Chikli remarked in an interview with the Kol Barama radio station.

Abraham Foxman, past head of the Anti-Defamation League, called on Netanyahu to replace Chikli.

Despite clashing with the Biden administration, Netanyahu has shown himself to be sensitive to US criticism, and his government’s decision to alter the proposed judicial overhaul legislation and pass it piecemeal may have partly been aimed at swatting away potential White House brickbats.

Before Netanyahu agreed to pause the overhaul in late March in order to allow for talks with the opposition, the Biden administration had been gradually raising its voice against the plan, noting that the countries’ shared commitment to strong democratic institutions is what has helped bolster their bilateral relationship. Parts of the legislation are again now moving forward.

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