Crisis in Israel tests complicated ties between Biden and Netanyahu

WASHINGTON — In February 2021, when President Biden sat down at the Resolute Desk for a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he was in the mood to reminisce about their decades-long relationship: Who would have thought, thought the new president from his Oval Office perch, that they would both end up where they did?

Their relationship was tested in the two years since that call.

Mr Netanyahu was removed from office before being re-elected, stood trial for corruption and moved to change the composition of his country’s judiciary, backing legislation, passed on Thursday, that would make it harder for him to be removed. desk.

Mr Netanyahu has pledged to go further with a plan to give the government greater control over the Supreme Court, which could allow his far-right administration to end the corruption case against him. On Thursday, the White House released a statement highlighting what the president recently told the prime minister privately: “Democratic values ​​have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of U.S.-Israel relations.”

The crisis in Israel, which has sparked mass protests, shows the limits of Mr. Biden’s influence over Mr. Netanyahu. But it also underscores how Mr Biden, who has warned that democracies around the world are vulnerable to an uprising by populist and authoritarian forces, now faces not just a foreign policy challenge, but a domestic one as well.

Concern is growing among American Jewish leaders who say they are alarmed by the move to overhaul Israel’s justice system at a time when groups of Americans, especially young people, are cooling their support for Israel.

“People feel that the very character of the state is under threat,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.

Mr. Biden has long treated Mr. Netanyahu like an old friend with whom he shares deep differences. In a call last Sunday, he called Mr. Netanyahu with a set of concerns: Americans of all political backgrounds, Mr. Biden told him, were alarmed by different parts of the judicial reform package. The president urged Netanyahu to “make the hard choices and necessary compromises” to guide the country through this difficult time, according to an administration official familiar with what was discussed.

People who know the pair say they have always been direct in their communication and have tried to keep their disagreements behind closed doors. Mr. Biden often switches between a casual tone — “Hey, man, what’s going on?” is often his opening line, according to two people familiar with their discussions – and his sharpness when speaking with the prime minister, depending on the topic at hand.

On Sunday, the two spoke about Iran and conditions in the West Bank ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, where concerns about further conflict are high after a series of violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis. After the two talks, White House officials had hoped Mr Netanyahu would seek to exit a judicial reform package that has sparked massive protests across Israel.

But as Mr. Netanyahu pledged on Thursday to move forward with plans to give the government greater control over Supreme Court appointments, observers said Mr. Biden’s attempts to push the Prime Minister towards a deviation may have been in vain.

“He’s going there; that’s the main thing,” Makovsky said, referring to Netanyahu’s decision to push the judicial overhaul plan. “He goes ahead with the most controversial part.”

There have been other high-stakes cases, aides to Mr Biden have pointed out, when the relationship between the two men helped ease tensions. In May 2021, their momentum was tested when tensions between Palestinian protesters, Israeli police and right-wing Israelis boiled over into two weeks of heavy fighting between Hamas militants and Israeli forces. The clash left over 200 people dead, many killed by Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.

At one point, the president curtly told Mr. Netanyahu that he could only fend off criticism of the Gaza strikes for so long. The two spoke half a dozen times during that time, according to a person familiar with their conversations. Even then, the president never wavered publicly: “There’s no change in my commitment, my commitment to the security of Israel, period,” Biden said, resisting pressure from Israel. within his own party to adopt a more skeptical position towards an ally. whose politics have shifted increasingly to the right, observers say, as a means of political survival.

Although Mr. Netanyahu has governed Israel for much of the last quarter-century, Mr. Biden – as he is quick to point out – has had a close relationship with Israel’s leaders since Golda Meir, the country’s fourth prime minister. .

“Every chance to return to this great country, where the ancient roots of the Jewish people go back to biblical times, is a blessing,” Biden said on a trip to Israel — his 10th visit — last July. “Because the bond between the Israeli people and the American people is deep. It’s deep. Generation after generation, this connection grows. We invest in each other. We dream together. We are part of what has always been the goal that we both had.

On that trip, Mr Biden was hosted by Yair Lapid, a moderate who served only five months as prime minister. Still, the president took the time to attend a meeting with the country’s opposition leader: Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Biden was able to speak candidly with Mr. Netanyahu, said several people familiar with the relationship, in part because their relationship dates back to the 1980s. The president was a senator when he first met Mr. Netanyahu, who was then an ambitious young Deputy Chief of Mission in Washington. Mr. Netanyahu eventually returned to Israel, where he was first elected prime minister in 1996. (When he lost in 1999, Mr. Biden wrote him a letter.)

As vice president, Mr Biden has made a point of saying publicly that he and Mr Netanyahu are ‘still friends’, despite the prime minister’s public efforts to kill President Barack Obama’s efforts to broker a pact nuclear with Iran. They are far from teammates. During the nuclear deal talks, Mr. Biden refused to attend a speech that Mr. Netanyahu had been invited to give by John A. Boehner, a Republican and former Speaker of the House.

In 2010, Mr. Biden was sent to Israel to assure Mr. Netanyahu of Washington’s commitment to Israel’s security, only to be blindsided by an announcement that the government would build settlements for 1,600 Jews in East Jerusalem. , a neighborhood that is a regular flashpoint between Israelis and Palestinians. Mr Biden decried the move as “precisely the kind of step that undermines the confidence we need right now”. Mr. Netanyahu denied knowing anything.

Perhaps the most illuminating anecdote illustrating their relationship came from Mr. Biden in 2014, when he spoke at a dinner for the Jewish Federations of North America: “I signed a photo for Bibi a long time ago,” Mr. Biden said, using a nickname for Mr. Netanyahu, according to a CNN report. “He’s been a friend for over 30 years. I said, ‘Bibi, I don’t agree with what you’re saying, but I love you.’ »


Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.
Back to top button