Sullivan meets Abbas, who urges tougher US stance on Israel

Top Biden adviser raises planned judicial overhaul in meeting with Netanyahu

US official confirms topic came up but declines to elaborate further, though administration has previously indicated it doesn’t plan to actually pressure Israel on the matter

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Thursday raised the controversial judicial overhaul being advanced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government during his one-on-one meeting with the Israeli premier in Jerusalem.

Confirming an Axios report, a US official said the topic came up but declined to elaborate further. Netanyahu’s office also declined to comment.

Earlier this month, two American officials told The Times of Israel that the US was not planning on pressuring Israel against implementing proposals to significantly limit the judiciary’s powers. A third source familiar speculated that the administration may offer vague support for the importance of a strong judiciary if journalists ask the US to comment on the matter, but that the policy would not extend much further.

Days later, the State Department began sending a statement about the importance of Israel’s “independent institutions” to reporters who asked for comment on the legal proposals unveiled by Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

Last week, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides told the Kan public broadcaster, “The Israeli people don’t want to be lectured by America… Our job is not to impose our will on every decision this government makes vis a vis issues like judicial reform.”

The aforementioned source familiar with the matter said there was little reason to assume Sullivan “grilled” Netanyahu on the issue or made demands that he rethink the plan.

Protesters against the planned judicial overhaul outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on January 14, 2023 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

However, the US might well be shifting away from its initial inclination not to get involved in the matter as the issue increasingly dominates the Israeli news cycle, the source added. Some 100,000 Israelis protested against the judicial plans last weekend and similar mass demonstrations are planned for this coming Saturday as well.

The overhaul provides for severely restricting the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, passing an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate such laws; giving the government control over the selection of judges; preventing the court from using a test of “reasonableness” against which to judge legislation and government decisions; and allowing ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry.

In a related development, Kan reported Thursday evening that Netanyahu ordered the shelving of a proposal to formally split the Tel Zion neighborhood away from the central West Bank’s Kochav Yaakov settlement, which was slated to be approved by the cabinet on Sunday.

The plan had been pushed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to better serve residents of Haredi settlements, but was blocked by Netanyahu ostensibly due to concerns over the optics of the effective creation of a new settlement days after hosting a senior official from the Biden administration that opposes Israeli expansion in the West Bank.

Channel 13 news separately reported that Sullivan urged Netanyahu and the other officials of the hardline government that he met with to act with restraint toward the Palestinian Authority, amid resurfacing fears of its possible collapse. Days after being sworn in, Netanyahu’s cabinet passed a series of sanctions against the PA, including the withholding of tens of millions of dollars from the tax revenues it collects to offset funds it pays to convicted terrorists and their families.

The steps were taken after the Palestinians led a successful campaign at the UN General Assembly compelling the International Court of Justice to weigh in on Israel’s conduct in the territories.

According to Channel 13, Sullivan urged the Israeli officials he met with to consider easing some of the sanctions imposed on the PA, given that calm on that front would allow the US and Israel to focus more on the issue Jerusalem cares most about: Iran.

The White House readout on Sullivan’s meetings said he “stressed that the administration will continue to support the two-state solution and will discourage policies that endanger its viability. Mr. Sullivan underscored the urgency of avoiding unilateral steps by any party that could inflame tensions on the ground, with special attention to maintaining the historic status quo with respect to the holy places in Jerusalem.”

“In all of his meetings, Mr. Sullivan recalled that the United States’ longstanding partnership with Israel, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, is built on mutual interests and democratic values,” the White House added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan sit down in Jerusalem with other Israeli and US officials on January 19, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

After meeting with Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials, Sullivan traveled to Ramallah for a meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Palestinian leader urged the US “to intervene to stop the far-right Israeli government’s extremist measures and racist agenda before it is too late,” the PA’s official Wafa news agency said.

The PA president also urged Sullivan to follow through on steps pledged by the Biden administration aimed at preserving prospects for a two-state solution, including reopening the US Consulate in Jerusalem and the PLO diplomatic mission in Washington, both of which were shuttered by former US president Donald Trump.

Palestinian officials have long expressed their exasperation over the Biden administration’s policy toward Israel, insistent that more pressure needs to be applied on Jerusalem and that efforts should be made to re-launch negotiations aimed at a two-state solution. The US, for its part, has argued that the conditions aren’t ripe for such a high-stakes initiative and that it will instead focus on smaller steps aimed at laying the groundwork for negotiations when the sides are ready.

The White House said that during his meeting with Abbas, Sullivan “reaffirm[ed] the US administration’s interest in strengthening engagement with the Palestinian Authority and deepening ties with the Palestinian people.”

“He also discussed the need for Palestinian leaders to help de-escalate tensions in the West Bank and to strengthen Palestinian institutions,” the White House said, in an apparent knock at the PA’s efforts in those realms until now.

Sullivan is slated to meet with National Unity chair Benny Gantz on Friday before heading back to the US. He was initially slated to meet with opposition chair Yair Lapid but scheduling problems in the latter’s office prevented the sit-down from taking place.

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