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Israeli PM and Biden exchange frosty words on legal overhaul


JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday rejected President Joe Biden’s suggestion that the prime minister walk away from a controversial plan to overhaul the justice system, saying the country makes its own decisions.

The exchange was a rare episode of public disagreement between the two close allies and signals growing friction between Israel and the United States over Netanyahu’s judicial changes, which he postponed after massive protests.

Asked by reporters on Tuesday night what he hopes the prime minister will do with the legislation, Biden replied, “I hope he walks away from it.” The president added that Netanyahu’s government “cannot continue down this path” and called for a compromise on the plan that is unsettling Israel. The president also skirted US Ambassador Thomas Nides’ suggestion that Netanyahu would soon be invited to the White House, saying, “No, not in the short term.”

Netanyahu replied that Israel is sovereign and “makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressure from abroad, including best friends.”

Later Wednesday, Netanyahu adopted a more conciliatory tone, saying that while “Israel and the United States have had occasional differences,” the alliance between them was “unshakable.”

“Nothing can change that,” he said in remarks at the State Department’s Democracy Summit.

The chilling exchange came a day after Netanyahu called for a halt to his government’s controversial legislation ‘to avert civil war’ following two consecutive days of mass protests that drew tens of thousands of protesters. people on the streets of Israel.

“I hope the prime minister will act in a way that tries to find a real compromise. But that remains to be seen,” Biden told reporters as he left North Carolina to return to Washington.

Organizers of the Israeli protest called for a demonstration in support of Biden outside the US embassy building in Tel Aviv on Thursday, while Netanyahu’s allies doubled down on criticism.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a close Netanyahu ally and minister in charge of police, told Israel Army Radio that Israel “is not another star on the American flag.”

“I expect the US president to understand this point,” he said.

Speaking to Kan public radio, Education Minister Yoav Kisch said “one friend cannot try to impose internal problems on the other”.

Netanyahu had several public spats with then-President Barack Obama over Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear issue. In 2015, he went behind the back of the White House to address Congress and oppose a nuclear deal between world powers and Iran that was in sight.

Nimrod Goren, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, noted that US-Israeli relations had hit points before – over, for example, the now-defunct agreement to limit nuclear capabilities. from Iran. By contrast, he said, the White House now appears to be “questioning Netanyahu’s competence as prime minister, and whether he is reliable or responsible.”

Netanyahu and his religious and ultranationalist allies announced the judicial overhaul in January just days after forming their government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history.

The proposal plunged Israel into its worst domestic crisis in decades. Business leaders, renowned economists and former security chiefs have all spoken out against the plan, saying it is pushing the country towards dictatorship.

It has also drawn criticism from Israel supporters in the United States, including American Jewish organizations, as well as Democratic members of Congress. A Pew poll released last May revealed a growing partisan divide between Israel and the Palestinians, with Democrats — especially younger voters — increasingly expressing favorable views of the Palestinians.

The plan would give Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, and his allies the final say in appointing the country’s judges. It would also give parliament, which is controlled by its allies, the power to overrule Supreme Court decisions and limit the court’s ability to review laws.

Critics say the legislation would concentrate power in the hands of the coalition in parliament and upset the balance of checks and balances between the branches of government.

Netanyahu said he was “striving to achieve this through broad consensus” during talks with opposition leaders that began on Tuesday.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition in Israel’s parliament, wrote on Twitter that Israel has been one of America’s closest allies for decades, but “the most radical government in the history of the country ruined everything in three months”.


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