Crisis in US relations'Israel and the US have had their occasional differences'

Netanyahu says alliance with US ‘unshakable’ after overhaul bust-up with Biden

Speaking at State Department’s Democracy Summit, premier insists to world that he is seeking consensus while legislating judicial changes, says Israel will remain a democracy

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

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

WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that Israel’s alliance with the United States is “unshakable” Wednesday, shaking off spiking tensions between the countries over his government’s effort to overhaul the judiciary.

Netanyahu spoke at the State Department’s Democracy Summit a day after US President Joe Biden made his first public remarks against the efforts to radically curb the High Court of Justice’s power, supercharging a crisis in US-Israel ties not seen in years.

“Israel and the United States have had their occasional differences, but I want to assure you that the alliance between the world’s greatest democracy and a strong, proud and independent democracy, Israel, in the heart of the Middle East, is unshakable. Nothing can change that,” Netanyahu said via satellite, prefacing his address by thanking Biden, his “friend of 40 years.”

Netanyahu read from prepared remarks that were undoubtedly altered in the final hours before the summit, following Biden’s remarks on the judicial overhaul.

Before boarding Air Force One in North Carolina on Tuesday, Biden told reporters he hoped Netanyahu would “walk away” from his current judicial overhaul legislation, saying he was “very concerned” about the health of Israeli democracy.

“They cannot continue down this road. And I’ve sort of made that clear,” Biden said. “Hopefully the prime minister will act… to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen.”

While Netanyahu had been invited to the forum months ago, the State Department didn’t add his name to the public itinerary until hours before Wednesday’s session. His participation was leaked on Sunday to Haaretz, leading to a series of questions from reporters about whether Netanyahu should be allowed to participate as his government moves to overhaul the judiciary. After initially refraining from providing an answer, Biden officials noted that Israel was just one of the 120 countries participating and that it had received an invitation last year as well.

Democratic-backsliding counties like Turkey and Hungary did not receive invitations, but the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Brazil did, and they had representatives appearing alongside Netanyahu.

The premier spoke Tuesday on a panel titled “Democracy — delivering economic growth and shared prosperity” along with the leaders of Greece, India, Timor-Leste, Italy, Kenya, Botswana and Croatia.

Netanyahu compared the pushback over economic liberalization reforms he implemented as finance minister two decades ago to the protests sweeping the country today against the judicial overhaul, insinuating that his critics now are just as wrong as they were then.

“Not only [did] the economy grow, and prosperity increased, but shared prosperity increased, because contrary to the predictions that the rich will grow richer and the poor will go poor, everybody grew richer,” Netanyahu said.

He framed the current crisis as one in which half the country believes that the government has been “obstructed by an all-powerful judiciary that dominates them and doesn’t let the public will be expressed.”

“The other half of the people are concerned that — even if this is true — that if any curtailment of judiciary powers is enacted, this would somehow impair and obstruct civil liberties,” Netanyahu said.

“I think both considerations have to be taken into account… and we have to make sure that as we shift the pendulum from one side from an ever powerful judiciary,” that the courts remain independent and that there will be a balance of powers in which individual rights are protected, the premier offered.

“I think that balance can be achieved. And that’s why I’ve promoted a pause that now enables both the opposition and the coalition to sit down and try to achieve a broad national consensus to achieve both goals.”

Netanyahu closed his remarks by addressing the “several governments [that] have expressed their concern,” insisting that the intense debate in Israel will provide an “opportunity to strengthen democracy” and restore a “restore a proper balance between the three branches of government.”

Protesters attend a rally in support of the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

He added that the “right to protest is sacrosanct” but that the “the obligation for national leaders is to try to take these issues that are in contention and merge them into a happy center.”

In later remarks, he promised that changes to the judiciary would not leave minorities unprotected.

“Israel is and will always remain a liberal democracy with equal rights for all. This means individual rights, civil and political liberties for every citizen, Jew, Muslim, Christian Druze women, members of the LGBT community, nothing will ever change that,” he claimed.

The government’s bid to upend the judiciary has unleashed widespread protests across the country and led to a flood of warnings from experts who say the proposals will damage Israel’s democracy and economy alike.

“We have to move from protest to agreement, and that’s where I want to get,” Netanyahu said.

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