US ‘deeply concerned’ after PM fires Gallant, urges compromise on judicial revamp

White House highlights recent call with PM where Biden raised concern over legislative efforts, stresses importance for checks and balances as bilateral ties deteriorate further

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

Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan set up bonfires and block a highway during a protest moments after he fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, in Tel Aviv, March 26, 2023. (AP/Oren Ziv)
Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan set up bonfires and block a highway during a protest moments after he fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, in Tel Aviv, March 26, 2023. (AP/Oren Ziv)

The Biden administration expressed its alarm on Sunday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant over the latter’s call for the hardline coalition to pause legislation aimed at overhauling the judiciary.

“We are deeply concerned by the ongoing developments in Israel, which further underscore the urgent need for compromise,” a White House National Security spokesperson told The Times of Israel hours after the defense minister’s removal.

Gallant on Saturday gave a primetime address in which he warned that the government’s effort to radically curb the High Court of Justice’s power had sparked a societal rift so large, it had “penetrat[ed] the IDF and security agencies.”

Gallant was fired less than 24 hours later.

The White House National Security Council spokesperson pointed to US President Joe Biden’s call with Netanyahu last week during which the former raised his concern about the judicial overhaul.

“As the President recently discussed with PM Netanyahu directly, democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship,” the spokesperson said.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks in a televised address on March 25, 2023. (Courtesy)

“Democratic societies are strengthened by genuine checks and balances, and fundamental changes should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support,” the spokesperson added, in an apparent knock at the overhaul effort, which critics say will neuter the High Court and grant unchecked power to the Knesset, which is already effectively controlled by the government in power.

Proponents of the overhaul argue that the court has garnered too much power over the past several decades and that the coalition’s proposals will actually restore balance between the branches of government.

The National Security Council spokesperson said the US “continues to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible that is based on broad popular support.”

The White House’s comments largely echoed messages that the Biden administration has offered for weeks in both private and public forums in which it has expressed its support for President Isaac Herzog’s efforts to strike a compromise between the coalition and the opposition. A month ago, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides called on the government to “pump the breaks” on its legislative effort

But the decision to issue an additional statement following Gallant’s firing indicated an escalation of concern in Washington over deteriorating developments in Israel.

Just days earlier, the US summoned Israel’s Ambassador to Washington Mike Herzog to the State Department to express the administration’s displeasure over the Knesset’s passing of legislation that will allow the resettlement of northern West Bank areas evacuated by Israel in 2005.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-US vice president Joe Biden speak in front of media prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

The move marked a new low in ties between Israel and the US, which have gradually deteriorated since Netanyahu returned to power three months ago.

Another senior US official told The Times of Israel last week that while Herzog’s summoning was sparked by the Knesset legislation, it was really about much more than that.

“The reality is that the boat’s got a lot of stuff on it,” the senior US official told The Times of Israel, explaining that the combination of the Disengagement Law cancellation, the radical judicial overhaul plans, new settlement announcements and remarks by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich have all proven too much for the administration to suffice with just another State Department condemnation.

An invitation to the White House was not extended during Biden’s call with Netanyahu, and the senior US official explained that one wouldn’t likely be offered in the near future.

“Not because of us, but because he won’t want to come until this is resolved,” the official said, speculating that Netanyahu would not want his next Oval Office meeting to be used by the president to rail on the government’s judicial overhaul plans.

Also on Sunday, a State Department spokesman characterized as “completely false” a claim tweeted by Netanyahu’s son Yair that the US has been funding the anti-overhaul protests against the government in order to strike a nuclear agreement with Iran.

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