IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Biden is begging Netanyahu 'not to rush' judicial overhaul that has shaken Israeli society. Will the Israeli leader listen?

Netanyahu argues unelected judges should not have the power to stop the policy agenda of an elected government.
Get more newsLiveonNBC News Now

TEL AVIV — Days before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to ram through the first part of his plan to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court, President Joe Biden urged him “not to rush” the legislation that has so deeply divided Israel

It was an unusually direct intervention by an American president into the affairs of one of the U.S.' closest allies.

By Wednesday, there was little indication that Biden’s words, as described by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, had changed Netanyahu’s political calculus.

Under intense pressure from far-right members of his government, Netanyahu says he plans to move the first part of the legislation through parliament as early as Sunday, despite mass street protests that have paralyzed parts of the country and the growing numbers of military reservists who say they will refuse to show up for duty if the plan goes ahead. 

The bill would strip the Supreme Court of its ability to strike down government decisions as “unreasonable.” Netanyahu argues the vague term gives unelected judges too much power to stop the policy agenda of an elected government. But critics say it’s one of the few checks on the power of the government, which has a majority in Israel’s single chamber parliament.

Earlier this year, the court used the reasonableness test to block Netanyahu from appointing an ally convicted of tax fraud to a senior Cabinet post. 

“This is obviously an area about which Israelis have strong views, including in an enduring protest movement that is demonstrating the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, which must remain the core of our bilateral relationship,” Biden told Friedman.

Israeli military reservists protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel
Israeli military reservists protest plans the judicial overhaul plans in Tel Aviv.Ohad Zwigenberg / AP

“Finding consensus on controversial areas of policy means taking the time you need," he continued. "For significant changes, that’s essential. So my recommendation to Israeli leaders is not to rush. I believe the best outcome is to continue to seek the broadest possible consensus here.”

Friedman, a longtime supporter of Israel who has expressed growing alarm over the country's direction under Netanyahu, said Biden invited him to the Oval Office on Tuesday for a one-hour, fifteen-minute meeting to make his message “crystal clear to all Israelis.” 

The columnist described Biden as “deeply worried for the stability and future of Israel,” though he did not quote the Netanyahu directly expressing that sentiment. (The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Friedman article.)

Israeli protesters have been stepping up their appeals to the Biden administration to intervene more forcefully in the country’s political crisis. Crowds gathered outside a U.S. embassy building in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, calling on the White House to do more. 

“President Biden, we love you, save us!” read one post from a demonstrator carrying an American flag.

But some protesters also expressed frustration that Biden this week agreed to meet Netanyahu in the U.S. later this year. 

Netanyahu took office in December but Biden had so far declined to invite him to the White House, in what was widely seen in Israel as a sign of U.S. opposition to the judicial overhaul.

Conversely, the Biden’s decision to issue an invitation to the U.S. offered Netanyahu a political win days before the parliamentary vote. 

“What message is this sending? A tyrant seeks to dismantle democracy and you’re inviting him to the Oval Office? This is unacceptable and we urge the U.S. administration to continue standing with Israelis who are tirelessly fighting for Israeli democracy,” Josh Drill, a protest spokesman, told NBC News.

Israeli opposition politicians and analysts have repeatedly warned that the U.S.-Israeli relationship was straining under the disagreement over Netanyahu’s judicial plans. 

“For the first time in the history of relations between the two countries, the United States is concerned that Israel will no longer be a democracy,” said the Institute for National Security Studies, a leading Israeli think tank. “Tension in the special relations between Jerusalem and Washington is not new, but casting doubt on such a fundamental anchor of that relationship is an unprecedented development.”

Compounding concerns about worsening ties is the growing sense that Biden’s Democratic Party is moving farther away from Israel, with Democratic lawmakers particularly uneasy over its treatment of the Palestinians. Those concerns were on vivid display this week after Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called Israel “a racist state,” although she later walked it back.

Joel Rubin, a former State Department official who previously ran the American Jewish Congress, said that shift is likely to continue. He pointed out that older politicians like Biden, who spent decades in the Senate nurturing close Israeli ties, are gradually being replaced by younger counterparts whose views on Israel formed after the Oslo Accords of the 1990s and the two Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas — events that strengthened U.S. support for Israel.

“Biden may very well be the last one,” Rubin said in an interview. “Most of the rest of the American political leaders are going to be educated in the post-Oslo, post-Intifada world and not have the same kind of sentimental attachment to Israel that Joe Biden has.”

Palestinians queue at an Israeli checkpoint in Bethlehem
Palestinians line up at an Israeli checkpoint in Bethlehem.Hazem Bader / AFP via Getty Images

Despite the strains playing out in public over Netanyahu’s approach, current and former U.S. officials have emphasized that on practical matters, the Biden administration has continued working to advance Israel’s security and diplomatic interests, preserving the traditional U.S. role as Israel’s staunch ally.

Behind the scenes, top U.S. officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan are working to broker an historic normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Last month, the administration appointed former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro to a newly created position aimed at expanding the Abraham Accords, which saw the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states recognize Israel.

After a visit by President Isaac Herzog to the White House during which he called Biden a “huge friend of Israel,” the administration announced a deal Wednesday to ultimately allow visa-free travel to the U.S. if Israel meets certain conditions — granting a long-standing request. 

In return, Israel will change its travel procedures to ensure equal treatment for all U.S. citizens entering the country without regard to national origin, religion or ethnicity — including Palestinian Americans.

In recent months, Netanyahu has abandoned one of the most controversial parts of the bill — which would have allowed parliament to vote to ignore rulings of the Supreme Court. 

Months of negotiations between the government and the opposition have failed to yield a compromise, and Netanyahu now appears ready to push the first part of the legislative package through parliament on Sunday. 

Raf Sanchez reported from Tel Aviv, Josh Lederman reported from London, and Abigail Williams reported from Washington.