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Israeli leaders lash out at Biden's criticism as judicial overhaul plan sparks a rare public rift

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the suggestion that he should “walk away” from his proposal to weaken the country’s Supreme Court, in a rare display of U.S.-Israel tensions.
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JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders engaged in a rare public clash with the United States on Wednesday after President Joe Biden criticized their contentious judicial overhaul plan.

Biden ignited a political firestorm with his suggestion that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should "walk away" from his proposal to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court and warned that the country “cannot continue down this road.”

Netanyahu and his allies responded defiantly to the direct rebuke from Washington, asserting that Israel would make its own decisions. Opposition leaders seized on the open feud as a sign that the now-paused changes threatened the country's crucial friendship with the U.S. — and, with it, Israel's security.

Israel judicial reform protests.
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv over the weekend as months of protests culminated in a day of mass unrest.Ahmad Gharabli / AFP - Getty Images

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Biden said he was “very concerned” about Israeli democracy after months of protests that have pitted Netanyahu’s right-wing government against hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on the streets, as well as business leaders and military reservists.

Netanyahu announced this week that he was pausing the proposed legislation and opening negotiations with opposition parties. But he has also promised far-right members of his governing coalition that he will pass the judicial overhaul in some form by the summer.

“Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned. And I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road,” Biden said.

Speaking in unusually direct terms about a U.S. ally, Biden said he had no intention of inviting Netanyahu to the White House “in the near term” and appeared to question whether the Israeli leader sincerely wanted to compromise.  

“I hope he walks away from it," Biden said of the plan. “Hopefully, the prime minister will act in a way that he is going to try to work out some genuine compromise. But that remains to be seen,” he said.

Netanyahu responded with a series of tweets just before 1 a.m. Jerusalem time. “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,” he said.

His allies were less restrained and accused the Biden administration of interfering in Israel’s domestic politics.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister and leader of the far-right Jewish Power party, told Israeli radio that Biden “needs to understand that Israel is no longer a star on the U.S. flag. We are a democracy and I expect the U.S. president to understand that.”

Another minister tweeted that Biden had “fallen victim to fake news.” He later deleted the tweet.

Israeli opposition parties pointed to the public clash as evidence of the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Israel under Netanyahu’s leadership.

“For decades, Israel was the USA’s closest ally. The most extreme government in the country’s history ruined that in three months,” said Yair Lapid, the Israeli opposition leader.

Speaking hours later at the U.S.-led Summit for Democracy, Netanyahu struck a more conciliatory tone.

While “Israel and the United States have had their occasional differences,” the alliance between them was “unshakable” and “nothing can change that,” he said.

The Biden administration had used a mix of careful public statements and intensive behind-the-scenes discussions to prod Netanyahu to come up with a compromise.
The Biden administration had used a mix of careful public statements and intensive behind-the-scenes discussions to prod Netanyahu to come up with a compromise.Debbie Hill / AP file

Protesters opposed to Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul announced a demonstration in front of a U.S. Embassy building in Tel Aviv on Thursday to rally in support of Biden’s criticism. Opponents of the overhaul argue they amount to a power grab that threaten to push the country toward dictatorship. Netanyahu argues that he is merely rebalancing power toward elected lawmakers and away from a judiciary that the right views as overstepping. 

Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for around 40 years and the president routinely describes himself as a Zionist. But the relationship has appeared increasingly strained since Netanyahu returned to power in December at the head of a coalition government that includes parties from the far-right.

U.S. officials have refused to meet with far-right Israeli ministers. And Washington forcefully condemned Israel’s finance minister after he called for a Palestinian town to be “erased.” He later retracted the comment.

The Palestinians have criticized the U.S. for confronting Netanyahu’s government with words but not concrete action.

Senior figures in Netanyahu’s orbit have also accused the U.S. of crossing the line from good faith criticism to intentionally undermining the prime minister.

Netanyahu’s 31-year-old son, Yair, who has become an influential part of his father’s political circle, retweeted claims the U.S. was bankrolling the protests against Israel’s government.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, was forced to deny the claims, calling them “absurd.”

Israeli PM Netanyahu Mulls Delay to Courts Overhaul as Protests Rock Israel
Many of those who joined the protests were moderate, secular Israelis without political affiliations who were concerned about the threat to the country’s democracy.Kobi Wolf / Bloomberg via Getty Images

The question of when Netanyahu will go to the White House has also become an increasingly sensitive Israeli political issue, with analysts interpreting the absence of an invitation as a sign of American frustration. The right-leaning Israel Today newspaper last week ran a headline asking: “Where is Netanyahu’s invitation to the White House?”

Despite high-level political tensions, cooperation between the U.S. and the Israeli militaries and security agencies continues. And both sides say they are committed to a deal that would allow Israelis to travel to the U.S. without visas.

Israel’s parliament has passed several laws in recent months to meet American requirements for the visa waiver program.

As part of the agreement, the U.S. is also insisting that Israel end its long-held practice of treating Palestinian Americans differently from other U.S. citizens — including denying them entry at Ben Gurion airport when they make visits to the occupied West Bank.