ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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Source close to Netanyahu accuses US of funding rallies against judicial overhaul

PM’s son shares Breitbart’s claim that State Department funded protest group; senior official says AG ‘irredeemably audacious’ for freezing transfer of Tel Aviv police chief

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 10, 2023 in Rome. (Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 10, 2023 in Rome. (Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP)

A senior government official traveling in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s entourage on his weekend trip to Italy claimed on Friday without offering evidence that the mass protests against the government’s controversial judicial overhaul were partially funded by the Biden administration.

“This protest is financed and organized with millions of dollars,” he said.

“We are following what is happening. This is a very high-level organization. There is an organized center from which all the demonstrators branch out in an orderly manner,” the senior official said.

“Who finances the transportation, the flags, the stages? It’s clear to us,” he said.

Another member of the premier’s entourage confirmed that the senior official was referring to the United States.

A similar claim was made last week by pro-Netanyahu pundit Yakov Bardugo on Channel 14 news, an outlet closely allied with the premier.

And on Saturday evening, Netanyahu’s son Yair shared an article about a report in the far-right Washington Free Beacon revealing that the State Department provides grant money to the Movement for Quality Government, an organization that has been leading the protests against the judicial overhaul.

However, that funding began during the Trump administration, and the State Department said it goes specifically toward democracy training programs in Israeli schools.

Israelis wave national flags as they protest against the government’s controversial judicial overhaul bill in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The legislative plans by the right-religious government, Israel’s most hardline to date, have sparked mass public protests in Israel for over two months, as well as fierce backlash from opposition politicians and dire warnings from economists, business leaders, legal experts and security officials.

The statements by the top official and others close to the premier are a sign of the difficulties Netanyahu is facing in his government’s relations with the US, with the official response seemingly being to lash out at Washington.

Over two months since entering office, Netanyahu has yet to receive an invitation to meet with US President Joe Biden at the White House for “a number of reasons,” according to a senior Israeli official who briefed reporters during the premier’s visit to Rome.

The official did not elaborate as to what those reasons are. However, he said that the question as to why Netanyahu hasn’t received an invitation would be better addressed to the White House.

A US official and a senior Middle Eastern diplomat told The Times of Israel last month that plans by the US and the UAE to host Netanyahu have been placed on the back burner, with the two sources explaining that the respective governments are frustrated with the new government’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and waiting to see what unfolds on the ground during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins later in March. The Ramadan period has often added another layer of tension between Israelis and Palestinians.

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, talk before a dinner at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner, Pool)

During Friday’s briefing, the senior Israeli official blamed the deal reached by Saudi Arabia and Iran to reestablish diplomatic relations on the combined weakness of the previous Israeli government and the Biden administration.

“There was a feeling of American and Israeli weakness, so Saudi Arabia turned to other channels,” said the senior Israeli official, despite the fact that media reports indicated negotiations between Riyadh and Tehran began in April 2021, when Netanyahu was still prime minister.

The remarks represented another clear shot by the Prime Minister’s Office at Biden, who entered office pledging to reenter the Iran nuclear deal but has gradually moved away from that effort over the past year amid Tehran’s military cooperation with Russia and the ongoing protests in the Islamic Republic against the regime there.

AG is ‘irredeemably audacious’

When the senior political figure was asked in Italy where he stood on the disagreement between National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara over the frozen transfer of Tel Aviv district police commander Amichai Eshed, the official said that he had something to say, but would wait until he was back in Israel to say it.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara speaks during a conference at the University of Haifa, December 15, 2022. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

An individual close to Netanyahu said: “The attorney general is irredeemably audacious — no one chose her to run the country. She cannot in any way go against the decision of a cabinet minister and make a round of appointments. This attorney general shows why there is so much anger at the legal system. What’s happening here doesn’t make sense, and it can’t continue.”

The ouster of Eshed was announced on Thursday evening by Ben Gvir, who said that at the recommendation of Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, Eshed would be moved to head the police’s Training Department.

A composite image of Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 and Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Both Shabtai and Ben Gvir have insisted the removal of Eshed had been planned in advance.

But Ben Gvir has also said his decision to make the move now was tied to the commander’s handling of the mass protests in Tel Aviv over the past 10 weeks, where police have largely shown patience with demonstrators even when they have blocked roads and the major Ayalon Highway.

Eshed’s removal was immediately frozen by the attorney general, who said there were concerns that it was carried out at Ben Gvir’s instigation, in a breach of the minister’s authorized behavior.

Jacob Magid and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report, which first appeared in Hebrew on Zman Yisrael.

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