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Biden, Netanyahu exchange frosty words over legal overhaul

Published:Thursday | March 30, 2023 | 12:55 AM
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
US President Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden


Israel’s prime minister on Wednesday brushed aside criticism of his judicial overhaul plan from President Joe Biden, saying the matter was an internal Israeli issue and would not be influenced by outside pressure.

While both sides tried to play down their differences, it was a rare bout of public disagreement between the two close allies, and reflected what has been a lukewarm relationship between the Biden administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government. It also marked the latest sign of cooling ties between Israel and the Democratic Party.

The disagreement came after months of unrest in Israel over Netanyahu’s proposed overhaul of the country’s judicial system. Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, says the plan is needed to rein in the powers of an interventionist judiciary. Critics say it will push the country toward authoritarianism by weakening an independent court system.

Following especially heavy protests, Netanyahu this week froze the plan and launched negotiations on a compromise with his political opponents. The timeout prompted Biden’s ambassador, Tom Nides, to tell Israeli media that he expected Netanyahu to soon be invited to the White House.

Asked about the legislation on Tuesday, Biden told reporters, “I hope he walks away from it.” He said Netanyahu’s government “cannot continue down this road” and called for a compromise. He also said there were no immediate plans for a White House visit, saying: “No, not in the near term.”

Netanyahu responded with a statement expressing appreciation for Biden’s years of support for Israel and vowing to seek a “broad consensus” over the legal programme. But he also dismissed the outside pressure.

“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,” Netanyahu said.

Members of his coalition reacted even more harshly, saying Biden had no business interfering in an internal Israeli matter.

Israel “is not another star in the American flag,” said National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Power party. “I expect the US president to understand this point.”

Netanyahu later tried to soothe tensions in a speech to the US “Summit for Democracy”, a virtual gathering of global leaders, saying that while the United States and Israel have “occasional differences”. the ties between them are “unshakeable”.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby also tried to play down the disagreements, saying Biden’s comments about the judicial overhaul plan have remained “completely consistent”. He also dismissed suggestions they caused tensions in an “unshakeable” relationship.