US official likens PM's recent 'erratic' conduct to Trump's

PM to be invited to meet Biden ‘relatively soon,’ US envoy says after overhaul pause

Nides speculates that Netanyahu likely to visit White House after Passover, but White House later clarifies that nothing is currently in the works

File: US President Joe Biden meets then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (right) at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. At left is Secretary of State Antony Blinken; 2nd-left is US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. (GPO)
File: US President Joe Biden meets then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (right) at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. At left is Secretary of State Antony Blinken; 2nd-left is US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. (GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be invited to the White House “as soon as their schedules can be coordinated,” US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said Tuesday morning, less than 12 hours after the premier announced that he was pausing his government’s highly divisive judicial overhaul plan.

“I’m sure he’ll be coming relatively soon,” Nides told Israel’s Army Radio. “I assume after Passover, obviously no date has been set yet. There’s no question he will come and meet [US President Joe] Biden. They will see each other personally, I’m sure, quite soon. Without question, he’ll be coming to the White House as soon as their schedules can be coordinated.”

A US official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Times of Israel that the Biden administration wants to first see Israelis and Palestinians make it through the spring religious holidays peacefully before focusing on a White House visit for Netanyahu. The official speculated that the visit would not take place for “at least another month or two.”

Later in the day, the National Security Council released a statement that sought to further lower expectations regarding any trip to DC for Netanyahu in the near future: “As Ambassador Nides said, there is no plan for PM Netanyahu to visit Washington. Israeli leaders have a long tradition of visiting Washington, and PM Netanyahu will likely visit at some point.”

Netanyahu has reportedly been irked by the lack of an invitation to meet Biden for a full three months after he returned to power at the helm of a hard-right government. A report recently indicated that the premier had forbidden his Likud party members from meeting US government officials during trips abroad, fearing this would underline that Netanyahu hadn’t met Biden yet.

Washington has repeatedly cautioned against the plan to politicize and radically constrain the judiciary and urged dialogue on a more broadly agreed-upon reform, amid major months-long protests and warnings that the government’s plan would erode democratic checks and balances, economic growth and national security.

These warnings intensified after Netanyahu announced he was firing Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday night after the latter broke with him and urged a pause on the overhaul legislation, triggering unprecedented overnight demonstrations and nationwide strikes the following day that ultimately forced the premier to delay the bills until May.

The New York Times reported late Monday, citing unnamed senior administration officials, that the Biden administration had bombarded Netanyahu with frequent messages that he was “imperiling Israel’s reputation as the true democracy at the heart of the Middle East.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, left, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a vote in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The report said the White House had concluded that Netanyahu had “deeply miscalculated” by firing Gallant, putting himself in an “impossible bind,” and that he would benefit by being able to use the deep US concern to convince his far-right allies to avoid toppling the government since he had no choice but to delay the overhaul.

One US official speaking to The Times of Israel likened Netanyahu’s “erratic” conduct over the past several days to that of former US president Donald Trump.

Inviting Netanyahu to meet Biden while mass protests were being held against him would have been “deeply uncomfortable,” the New York Times cited a senior official as saying.

Even after the overhaul pause, the report said, Washington is questioning how long Netanyahu can last in power. “His reputation for political acumen and the ability to press for compromise had been tarnished,” it cited several officials as saying, noting that the crisis has, for now, merely been “kicked down the road.”

Officially, the White House reacted Monday by welcoming Netanyahu’s announcement “as an opportunity to create additional time and space for compromise. A compromise is precisely what we have been calling for.”

“Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support,” added White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Earlier in the day, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby had said the legislation that Netanyahu’s coalition had been trying to advance “flies in the face of the whole idea of checks and balances.”

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides speaks at an event in Jerusalem on February 19, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In his Tuesday interview with Army Radio, Nides joked that he had “had a nice night of sleep last night” following Netanyahu’s move.

“We welcome the move. As Biden said many times, we wanted to see compromise and dialogue, and I applaud the prime minister for announcing that,” he said, adding that he was “optimistic” and that anything that brings “calm” was something Washington supports.

He indicated that Washington would continue working directly with Netanyahu, rather than with his far-right allies, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

Nides also lauded the strength of Israel’s democracy, saying it was “unbelievable that for 12 weeks, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people have come to protest, virtually nobody has been hurt, very few have been arrested — this is live and well a democracy. I applaud the fact the protesters on both sides have come out peacefully. It’s something we can all watch with admiration.”

This aerial view shows people protesting in Tel Aviv against the government’s controversial judicial overhaul bill, on March 25, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The fate of ousted Defense Minister Gallant was unclear Tuesday, as he had apparently not yet received a letter starting the 48-hour period until his ouster. Calls have been growing for Netanyahu to cancel the firing, but Nides was careful to stay out of the issue.

The envoy said he had an “enormous amount of respect” for Gallant, but added that he, Nides, was “not the prime minister” and can’t be the one deciding who is in certain positions.

However, the Kan public broadcaster reported Tuesday morning that US officials have told Israeli officials that they were concerned about Gallant’s dismissal, noting that the Biden administration has a “very good work relationship” with the defense minister.

The outlet quoted an unnamed senior State Department official saying the US “wants to focus on the military partnership between Washington and Jerusalem, and on how to best defend Israel, the US and the Middle East.

“This is the reason that we are calling on leaders of Israel to find a compromise as soon as possible.”

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