US vice president Harris joins Biden in expressing concern over Israeli upheaval

Without mentioning judicial overhaul, Harris tells reporters during Africa tour that ‘we are all watching’ the Israeli government’s actions, as tensions with Washington grow

US Vice President Kamala Harris conducts a roundtable of women entrepreneurs to discuss economic empowerment, inclusion, and leadership in Accra, Ghana, March 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Misper Apawu)
US Vice President Kamala Harris conducts a roundtable of women entrepreneurs to discuss economic empowerment, inclusion, and leadership in Accra, Ghana, March 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Misper Apawu)

US Vice President Kamala Harris expressed worries over the situation in Israel on Wednesday, joining President Joe Biden in raising concern around the Israeli government’s now-paused drive to remake the judicial system.

Speaking to reporters during a visit to Africa, Harris was asked if she is concerned about the situation in Israel. She responded in the affirmative, adding that “We are all watching it.”

“We have a long and enduring relationship, the US and Israel based on a number of factors that include an intertwined history, but also that relate to shared principles in terms of the importance of democracy,” Harris said. “We will continue to work on strengthening our relationship based on that — a commitment to democracies and of course, an intertwined and shared history.”

Harris’s comments came just hours after Biden told reporters he hoped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would “walk away” from his current judicial overhaul legislation, saying he was “very concerned” about the health of Israeli democracy.

Before Biden’s comments, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides embarked on a round of media interviews in which he conveyed positive messages regarding Israeli-US relations following the decision to freeze the legislation and insisted that Netanyahu would soon be invited to Washington for a state visit.

Nides was apparently bemused by Biden’s seemingly off-the-cuff comments and has sought clarification from the White House regarding the mixed messaging, the Ynet news outlet reported.

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

Multiple Hebrew media reports on Wednesday night cited an unnamed US official doubling down on Biden’s remarks as reflecting the administration’s position, and denying that the comments would be walked back.

A US official quoted by Channel 12 news said that Netanyahu’s sacking of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for calling to halt the judicial overhaul in favor of dialogue with the opposition was “the straw that broke the camel’s back” regarding Washington’s position on the issue.

The official also apparently said that the US viewed plans for a new police force being pushed by far-right minister Itamar Ben Gvir as “dangerous and irresponsible.”

In the hours before Netanyahu agreed to halt the controversial legislation on Monday evening, Biden sent the Israeli prime minister a private message urging him to do so, the US Axios news outlet reported Wednesday.

The message was worded more harshly than the public one released by the Biden administration on Monday, Axios said, citing two anonymous US officials.

On Tuesday, Biden told reporters that Israel “cannot continue down this road. And I’ve sort of made that clear. Hopefully, the prime minister will act … to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen.”

The comments were Biden’s first directly addressing the Israeli government’s push to overhaul the judiciary — a move that has divided the country.

Responding to Biden’s public rebuke, Netanyahu initially said on Wednesday that “Israel is a sovereign country [that] makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”

Later, Netanyahu told the US State Department’s Democracy Summit that Israel’s alliance with the United States is “unshakable,” despite a series of recent incidents that have provoked anger in Washington.

Netanyahu’s invitation to the summit was almost revoked, Axios reported, after the prime minister’s blunt response to Biden’s comments.

“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.

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