Opposition enraged by 'immense damage to ties'

Likud, far-right scorn Biden criticism; one MK says Israel can defend itself alone

Ben Gvir: ‘We’re not another star on US flag’; Likud’s Vaturi: ‘We’re probably more democratic’ than US; ex-envoy: Some US officials see Netanyahu as ‘existential danger to Israel’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Left: US President Joe Biden at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, March 28, 2023. (AP/Carolyn Kaster); Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on March 19, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool photo via AP)
Left: US President Joe Biden at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, March 28, 2023. (AP/Carolyn Kaster); Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on March 19, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool photo via AP)

Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition reacted furiously Wednesday morning to US President Joe Biden’s extraordinary criticism of Jerusalem’s plan to severely weaken the justice system, with one Knesset member from the premier’s ruling Likud party going so far as to claim that Israel was “probably more democratic” than America and accusing former US president Barack Obama of causing the death of Israeli soldiers during a 2014 operation in the Gaza Strip.

Following the right-wing outburst, Netanyahu instructed members of the cabinet to not comment on the tensions with Washington.

Meanwhile, opposition figures decried the government as “dangerous,” and a former Israeli envoy to Washington described the current crisis as perhaps the worst in bilateral relations in more than 30 years, adding that the Biden administration has “no trust” in the prime minister.

Biden urged Netanyahu on Tuesday 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.”

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

The strikingly critical public comments from the president seemed to go against his administration’s messaging in the previous 24 hours, which had seen US officials repeatedly hail Netanyahu’s decision on Monday to suspend his coalition’s legislative effort and enter negotiations with the opposition to strike a compromise on judicial reform.

Netanyahu quickly responded by insisting that he was seeking to restore the “proper balance between the three branches of government” via consensus. Rebuffing Biden’s unprecedentedly grave warning, the prime minister declared that Israel would not make decisions based on overseas pressure, even from “the best of friends.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid tweeted Wednesday morning: “For decades, Israel was the closest ally of the US. The most extreme government in the history of the country spoiled this in three months.”

Benny Gantz, the leader of the opposition National Unity party, called Biden’s comments “an urgent wake-up call for the Israeli government,” adding: “Damage to our ties with the US, our closest friend and our most important ally, is a strategic blow.”

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli said that Biden had “said in his own way that Netanyahu is dangerous to Israel. This is the time to act to replace this dangerous government.”

Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Merav Michaeli and Avigdor Liberman meet in Jerusalem on March 13, 2023 to coordinate opposition strategy to judicial overhaul. (Yesh Atid)

Many coalition members made comments Wednesday morning that were similar in message to Netanyahu’s reaction, while others fired back at Biden more fiercely.

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, whom the Biden administration has repeatedly indicated it will not directly engage with, told Army Radio: “We appreciate the democratic regime there, but it is precisely for this reason that they need to understand that Israel is an independent country and not another star on the US flag.

“It needs to be clear all around the world: The people here held elections and have their own wishes.”

However, a series of recent opinion polls have shown the current coalition crashing in support and potentially losing as many as 11 seats out of its current 64 in the 120-member Knesset. Even in a poll aired Tuesday on Channel 14, a network widely seen as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu, the present coalition’s parties were predicted to get just 58 seats, losing their majority.

Likud MK Nissim Vaturi told Radio 103FM: “There is no way the US will interfere in Israel’s internal matters. This is a democracy, so for him to dictate to us what we must do?”

He added criticism of the American system of picking the Supreme Court chief, calling it “improper” and asserting: “We are probably a bit more democratic that the system there.”

On Israel’s dependence on US backing, Vaturi said that “if we need to protect ourselves, we will do so without the US if it doesn’t support us.”

The lawmaker also accused the Obama administration of imposing a weapons embargo on supplying Israel with Hellfire missiles for Apache attack helicopters, directly accusing Washington of causing the deaths of Israeli soldiers during a 2014 war with terror groups in Gaza.

“There was an incident during Protective Edge when they decided on a weapons embargo for Hellfire missiles for Apache [helicopters]… soldiers were killed, I believe, also thanks to the American ‘support,'” Vaturi said. When the interviewer asked him whether he was saying Israeli troops had been killed due a US weapons embargo, Vaturi answered: “Yes.”

Likud MK Nissim Vaturi attends a discussion in the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a separate interview with Army Radio, Vaturi said: “Biden is influenced by leftist journalists and Israeli opposition figures who decided to carry out a leadership coup. Is this democratic?”

Fellow Likud MK Dan Illouz said: “The repeated intervention of the US administration doesn’t indicate a relationship between friends and is unacceptable. Israel’s internal policies belong to Israel alone, and it must stay this way.”

Culture Minister Miki Zohar of Likud tweeted that Biden had “fallen victim to fake news that’s been spread in Israel against our justified legal reform.” He then deleted the tweet “out of respect for our important relationship with our greatest ally, the United States,” while repeating his claim of damage to Israel “by fake news.”

Likud’s Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi took aim at opposition figures Lapid and Michaeli, echoing a claim that their campaign against the judicial overhaul was akin to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel boycott movement.

“One can’t be angry at Biden when he’s affected by the BDS campaign waged by Merav Michaeli and Yair Lapid,” Karhi told Radio Galey Israel. “We respect the US, which is our greatest friend, but on the other hand we stand by our values. We respect Biden but we have liberty. Part of our liberty is to free ourselves from the chains that bound us for a generation.”

National Unity MK Gideon Sa’ar, a former senior lawmaker in Netanyahu’s party who fell out with him and is now in the opposition, slammed some of the coalition’s reactions: “Never has any government caused such immense damage to the country in such a short time. The remarks by Likud ministers and MKs attest to a total loss of judgment.”

Former deputy foreign minister and former ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon, October 23, 2012. (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)

Former Israeli ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon said the current crisis was perhaps the worst in bilateral relations since 1991, when then-US president George H. W. Bush blocked the transfer of $10 billion to Israel due to his distrust of then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.

“Maybe it’s even worse [now], because in 1991 it was really a matter of foreign policy on settlements,” Ayalon told Radio 103FM. “But now, when they see Israel is struggling over its fundamental characteristics, for them this is something that completely destabilizes the basis of the relationship.

Ayalon said that after Netanyahu announced the firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant — which set off unprecedented rallies and strikes that forced the premier to pause the overhaul, even though Gallant is yet to get a dismissal letter — the former diplomat received confused phone calls from US officials, some of whom said that “until proven otherwise, Netanyahu is an existential danger to the State of Israel.

“It’s that bad. Not only that, but he’s imperiling the security interests of the US,” Ayalon said. “They are following this with anxiety. Netanyahu knows the DNA and tradition in Washington — the whole political leadership there is all about the proliferation of democracy. To them, democracy is like a religion, they don’t compromise.”

Ayalon said Netanyahu’s reaction “worsens the situation,” adding: “They have no trust in him.”

Michael Oren, another former ambassador to the US, who was appointed by Netanyahu and served under him, criticized Biden and American democracy and invoked the January 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol.

“I don’t think a country that has experienced not long ago an insurrection is in a position to be preaching democracy to Israel, or in fact anybody. It is not exactly the position to be telling us what is democratic and what is not democratic,” Oren told I24 news.

He added that Biden’s remarks could have the “boomerang effect” of rallying Israelis behind the government, and criticized the US president for airing his criticism publicly rather than in a phone call. However, he added that the current crisis was not an all-time low in relations.

Meanwhile, a senior US official who spoke with The Forward anonymously overnight said Israel’s government had made a “gross miscalculation” in understanding Washington’s reaction to the legal shakeup. “There’s no way Jerusalem wanted to be where they are today.”

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