Leaf still encouraged by quiet start to Ramadan

Judicial battle distracting Israel from fighting West Bank violence – top US official

Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf says regional leaders are concerned over unrest beyond Green Line, laments that Israel’s ability to address it is ‘compromised somewhat’

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Then-US ambassador to the UAE Barbara Leaf. (Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr./US Air Force)
Then-US ambassador to the UAE Barbara Leaf. (Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr./US Air Force)

Israel’s domestic fight over the government’s judicial overhaul effort has distracted it from dealing with rising tensions in the West Bank, said a senior US official on Thursday.

“The complete distraction that was inevitable during these last weeks and last three months would also mean there was a distraction away from urgent issues that need addressing in terms of Palestinians in the West Bank,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf during a briefing about her recent trip to the region, which did not include a stop in Israel.

“Leaders across the region have expressed their concerns to me regularly about the insecurity and instability in the West Bank,” Leaf said in response to a question.

Israel’s “ability to deal with that has been compromised somewhat by the issues related to public protest and public disagreement over the judicial restructuring plan,” she argued.

Mass protests have been held at least twice a week for nearly three months against the proposed legislation, which critics say will politicize the court, remove key checks on governmental power and cause grievous harm to Israel’s democratic character. Proponents of the measures say they will rein in an activist judiciary that protects left-wing interests at the expense of policies that the majority wishes to implement.

Violence between Israel and Palestinians has continued to rise since the start of the year. Palestinian attacks in Israel and the West Bank in recent months have left 15 people dead — almost all of them Israelis — and several more seriously hurt.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivering remarks to a US State Department summit via video on March 29, 2023. (screen capture: YouTube/State Department)

At least 86 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the year, most of them while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces, though some were uninvolved civilians and others were killed under circumstances that are being investigated.

The US has sent senior officials, including Leaf, to two recent regional summits in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh to find ways to calm tensions.

Leaf said the two sides are moving “very slowly, painstakingly” in the right direction.

Police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking a highway during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, March 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Oren Ziv)

She said she is encouraged by a quiet start to the month of Ramadan, and that “both parties have shown a real seriousness of intent.”

“But facts on the ground and activities often get in the way of the best intentions,” she said

Leaf did not mention US President Joe Biden’s recent criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu, nor did she mention any Israeli leaders by name.

On Tuesday,  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.”

US President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, March 28, 2023, en route to Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned. And I’m concerned that they get this straight,” Biden told reporters who asked him about the well-being of Israeli democracy and Netanyahu’s bid to shackle the judiciary.

Biden also gave an emphatic “no” when asked whether he would be inviting Netanyahu to the White House, adding: “Not in the near term.”

Netanyahu quickly responded by insisting that he was seeking to restore the “proper balance between the three branches of government” via consensus. However, he also rebuffed Biden, saying that “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”

In an apparent effort to de-escalate tensions, the White House on Wednesday hailed various points from Netanyahu’s response.

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