A non-invite, a mind-your-own-business response — Biden and Netanyahu tensions rise
JERUSALEM — Israel accused the United States of inappropriately intervening in its internal affairs as the fallout continues from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempt to increase his far-right coalition's say in how judges are chosen.
The comments widened simmering tension between the two close allies that has built for months.
Netanyahu's planned judicial changes are highly controversial
On Monday, Netanyahu postponed for at least a month — but vowed to resume — an effort to change how Israel appoints judges to the Supreme Court. The court is especially pivotal in Israel and could rule over future legislation from Netanyahu's coalition or even eventually over Netanyahu's own corruption trial. The effort has prompted months of demonstrations in Israel, with protesters saying it's an attempt to pave the way for a nationalist and religious agenda.
Biden told reporters a day later that he was "very concerned" about the judicial proposal. And he said there were no plans "in the near term" for the U.S. to invite Netanyahu to the White House — responding to what was apparently an offhand remark by the U.S. ambassador to Israel that Netanyahu could be invited soon.
Netanyahu maintains he's trying to strengthen the country's democracy against a liberal court system. As for the U.S. pressure, he issued a statement Wednesday saying, "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."
Later in the day, reporters from mainly U.S. media were invited to hear a senior Israeli official speak — without naming and mostly without quoting the official — with sharper criticism of the White House. The official accused the U.S. of inappropriately intervening and said it was bizarre for Biden to comment after Netanyahu said he was delaying his proposal.
Signs the two administrations may not be on the same page
The situation poses diplomatic and political challenges for both leaders. Israel is a key security ally and major recipient of U.S. military assistance — billions of dollars a year coming under an agreement made with the Obama administration, in which Biden was vice president.
But since Netanyahu was elected last fall, there have been a series of exchanges with the White House showing they weren't on the same page on Israeli plans to expand Jewish settlements on occupied territory in the West Bank and Israel's use of force in tracking down militants.
The Biden administration has been under pressure from progressive Democrats to punish Israel for its policies affecting Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and U.S. Jewish groups have voiced concern over Netanyahu's proposals for the courts.
The White House says Biden addressed the judicial overhaul with Netanyahu in a phone call last week.
Netanyahu spoke of an unshakable alliance
In Israel, strained relations with the U.S. can reflect badly on a prime minister — but so can the appearance of giving in to Washington.
Netanyahu tried to paper over the dispute in his remote address Wednesday to the Biden administration's Summit for Democracy, saying "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."
The senior Israeli official told reporters that U.S. officials had not engaged Israel in substantive conversations on the contents of the legislation.
Netanyahu's coalition is now negotiating with opposition politicians to try to reach a consensus on a judicial overhaul before the parliament returns to session in late April.
Later Wednesday, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby emphasized the long, friendly relations between the two countries and Biden and Netanyahu, who he said have known each other for 40 years. He said the U.S. was pleased with Netanyahu's pledges to negotiate with opponents to his court proposals.
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