Says judicial reforms need to 'preserve checks and balances'

US praises Netanyahu call for compromise, lowering heat after Biden overhaul rebuke

White House says ‘a lot to like’ in PM’s response, downplaying sharp criticism over US interference in Israeli affairs, even as coalition members continue to bash Washington

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

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)

WASHINGTON — The White House offered praise Wednesday for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments in response to concerns from US President Joe Biden regarding the judicial overhaul being advanced by the Israeli government.

The remarks by White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby appeared to represent an attempt by the Biden administration to lower the temperature after tensions between the US and Israel flared up a day earlier.

“There’s a lot to like about it. He talked about searching for compromise. He talked about working toward building consensus with respect to these potential judicial reforms. He talked about how unshakable he knows the relationship is between the United States and Israel. And he talked about his great respect for President Biden — that’s a respect that president Biden shares as well,” Kirby said upon being primed at a press briefing.

The latest and most severe blip in the bilateral relationship — which has slowly deteriorated since Netanyahu returned to office three months ago at the head of the most right-wing government in Israeli history — unfolded on Tuesday when Biden was asked about the state of Israeli democracy and the prime minister’s planned judicial overhaul before boarding Air Force One.

The president responded that he hoped Netanyahu would “walk away” from his current judicial overhaul legislation, and that 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.”

Biden also gave an emphatic “no” when asked whether he would be inviting Netanyahu to the White House, adding: “Not in the near term.”

Netanyahu responded shortly thereafter by saying he appreciates Biden’s friendship and longstanding commitment to Israel and stressed that the US-Israel alliance is “unbreakable” and can overcome disagreements. The premier also said his government is committed to correcting what he claims is a power imbalance between Israel’s three branches of government but is trying to do so with as broad a consensus as possible.

However, Netanyahu closed by rebuffing Biden, saying that “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”

While Kirby only highlighted the parts of the statement the US appreciated, a US official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that Netanyahu’s response had infuriated some Biden officials, including those who were caught off guard by the president’s original candid statements to the press.

Kirby said Wednesday that the respect Netanyahu has for the president is mutual. These two gentlemen have known each other for 40-some-odd years.”

“The great thing about friends — I’m sure you all have friends. You don’t always agree with everything your friend does or says, and the great thing about a deep friendship is that you can do that,” the White House spokesperson added.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Wednesday, March 29, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Israel is indeed “a sovereign state, and sovereign states make sovereign decisions,” Kirby said.

Kirby was asked whether Biden’s call for Netanyahu to “walk away” from the current overhaul proposals was consistent with his subsequent appeal for compromise on judicial reform.

“It’s completely consistent,” Kirby responded. “We obviously have urged Israeli leaders to come up with a compromise as soon as possible. The president’s comments yesterday about walking away from it are perfectly consistent with finding a compromise that preserves checks and balances in Israel.”

Biden was asked on Tuesday whether he had spoken to Netanyahu by phone “in the middle of all this” — an apparent reference to street protests that escalated in the last few days after Netanyahu fired his defense minister — Biden said: “No, I did not. I delivered a message through our ambassador.”

A White House National Security Council spokesperson told The Times of Israel Wednesday that the private message Biden sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “the same message you’ve been hearing from us all along.”

The spokesperson did not elaborate on what that message was, but a different US official told The Times of Israel that Biden had his Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides “sternly” urge Netanyahu to halt his government’s effort to radically curb the High Court of Justice’s power. The premier announced a temporary pause hours later on Sunday.

US President Joe Biden speaks to the press at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, on March 28, 2023. (Jim Watson / AFP)

“As you heard from the president yesterday, and as he’s said consistently both privately and publicly over the past six weeks, we are concerned about recent developments in Israel and have called for a compromise before moving forward on these reforms,” the spokesperson continued.

“The president has long said that fundamental reforms like this require a broad basis of support to be durable and sustained. That’s why he has called for a genuine compromise and urged the Prime Minister during his recent phone call to help forge one as soon as possible,” the NSC spokesperson said.

“We have welcomed the decision taken on Monday to pull back the legislation and engage in a national dialogue. As the president said, he’s hopeful they’ll be able to find a genuine compromise. We believe that is the best path forward for Israel and all of its citizens,” the spokesperson said. “US support for Israel’s security and democracy remains ironclad.”

Biden’s remarks drew a furious rebuke from Israeli lawmakers allied with Netanyahu, with one Likud MK even suggesting Israel reject the $3.8 billion in annual security assistance that it receives from the US and fend for itself.

Netanyahu reportedly ordered lawmakers from his party to cease publicly attacking the Biden administration on Wednesday but at least one MK continued to do so.

Earlier in the day, the premier did some damage control of his own, telling the State Department’s Democracy Summit that “Israel’s alliance with the United States is “unshakable” and saying he was trying “to achieve a broad national consensus” on judicial reform.

“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.”

The radical nature of the judicial overhaul being advanced by Netanyahu’s government has further strained a bilateral relationship that is already tested due to Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Israel’s attorney general has warned that the package of legislation — which would give the coalition almost complete control over all judicial appointments, and radically constrain the High Court — would hand the government virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights or for Israel’s democratic character.

Last week, Washington summoned Israel’s Ambassador to the US Mike Herzog to the State Department for a private dressing-down over the Knesset’s passing of a law allowing the resettlement of northern West Bank areas evacuated by Israel in 2005.

It came after over two months of escalated rhetoric regarding the overhaul, Israel’s advancement of over 10,000 settlement homes in the West Bank and incendiary remarks and actions by its far-right ministers.

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