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US, Israel tone down rhetoric after Biden says he hopes Netanyahu shelves judicial overhaul
“We don’t want to interfere,” Biden said March 28. “They’ve got to work it out.”
American and Israeli officials sought to tone down heated rhetoric on Wednesday, at least in public, a day after President Biden said he hopes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “walks away” from controversial legislation to overhaul Israel’s judiciary. Many Israelis fear the changes could gut the country’s chief source of democratic checks and balances. Netanyahu responded with a statement rejecting foreign pressure.
“Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned,” Biden told reporters on the tarmac in North Carolina on Tuesday. “And I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road.”
“We don’t want to interfere,” Biden responded to a subsequent question on those who say America shouldn’t be involved in Israeli domestic politics. “We’re not interfering. They know my position. They know America’s position.”
Israel is “in a difficult spot… and they’ve got to work it out,” Biden said, speaking to reporters upon landing back at the White House Tuesday evening. Asked what he hopes Netanyahu will do on that particular law, Biden responded: “I hope he walks away from it.”
Biden’s reported comments spurred Netanyahu to issue his own statement at 1am Israeli time on Wednesday, saying that he’s known Biden for 40 years and appreciates his commitment to Israel, but that “Israel is a sovereign country” which does not make decisions “based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”
But if Netanyahu’s statement seemed to bristle at perceived, unwelcome interference from Washington, the White House on Wednesday put on a determined face to ignore it.
“If you look at his statement,…there’s a lot to like about it,” National Security Council strategic communications coordinator John Kirby told journalists at the White House press briefing Wednesday (March 29). “He talked about working towards building consensus here with respect to these …potential judicial reforms. He talked about how unshakeable 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. “These two gentlemen have known each other for 40-some-odd years.
“And that’s the great things about friends,” Kirby said. “You don’t always agree with everything your friend does or says. And the great thing about a deep friendship is you can be that candid with one another.”
Asked if there is a contradiction between the Biden administration’s repeated public urging of Israeli leaders to find a compromise on the judicial overhaul legislation, and Biden’s expressed wish Tuesday that Netanyahu walk away from it, Kirby insisted there was not.
“They’re completely consistent,” he said. “We obviously have urged Israeli leaders to…come up with a compromise as soon as possible. And the President’s comments yesterday about walking away from it are perfectly consistent with… finding a compromise that…preserves checks and balances in Israel.”
An unnamed senior Israeli official, speaking to mostly US media on condition of anonymity in Jerusalem on Wednesday, downplayed the dustup as a “tempest in a teapot,” CNN’s Jerusalem correspondent Hadas Gold reported. “This is a two on a scale of ten,” he said.
But the official, (who sounded to this reporter, who was not there, like Netanyahu confidante Ron Dermer), also rejected perceived U.S. interference. “A democracy should let other democracies figure things out,” the official said, Gold reported.
Meantime, the status of Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, whose firing by Netanyahu on Sunday spurred massive protests in Israel and a nationwide strike, remained unclear. As of Wednesday night, Gallant had apparently still not received an official notification letter of his dismissal.
“It’s not even clear if Gallant was fired,” Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel told a Brookings Zoom panel on the Israeli situation on Wednesday. “Because Netanyahu announced that on Sunday in an official statement, but he never bothered to send him a letter. And by Israeli law, it takes 48 hours once you get the letter to actually…force you to leave office. So Gallant is still at the office. And still attending the same meetings with Netanyahu, in spite of everything else.”
“This seems like an episode of Seinfeld,” Harel said, “But this is where we are right now.”
(One Israeli journalist tweeted Wednesday of a possible scenario under which Gallant might apologize for making a statement calling for a pause in the Israeli legislation on Saturday when Netanyahu was abroad in the United Kingdom, and then Netanyahu might reverse the firing. But it wasn’t clear if such a scenario were being considered. A senior US official said Wednesday that he was not aware of Gallant’s status.)
“You can see how a country with a vaunted military establishment can simply come apart in no time,” former Israeli deputy national security advisor Chuck Freilich said last week, before Netanyahu agreed to pause the legislation for one month. “As a political scientist, it’s fascinating. As a citizen, I find it a bit different.”
“This is a dangerous moment for Israel,” Shalom Lipner, a former aide to several Israeli prime ministers now affiliated with the Atlantic Council, wrote in a paper on the crisis in the publication, First Things. “The debate over the source of absolute authority is sucking all the air out of the room, leaving other challenges to fester. It is obliterating internal cohesion. It is draining brains and investments from the country. And it is putting the nation in genuine peril.”
The crisis seems to have eased somewhat, at least temporarily, since Netanyahu on Monday agreed to pause the legislation for a month, and talks on a possible compromise have gotten underway under the auspices of Israeli President Isaac Herzog.
“These talks have started,” Lipner told me from Israel on Wednesday. “People want to give them space to succeed.” But there is very limited trust between the parties, he said. And because the profile of the demonstrators was so diverse, you don’t have total agreement on objectives, he said.
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