‘Friends’: White House downplays Biden-Netanyahu public spat

AJ Staff

Al-Jazeera  /  March 29, 2023

White House spokesman says ‘there’s a lot to like’ about Israeli PM statement rejecting US president’s criticism.

Washington, DC  The White House has played down the apparent tensions between US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, portraying this week’s public spat as a friendly disagreement.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby stressed on Wednesday that Biden and Netanyahu are “friends” who have known each other for nearly four decades.

“I’m sure you all have friends,” Kirby told reporters on Wednesday. “You don’t always agree with everything your friend does or says. And the great thing about a deep friendship is you can be that candid with one another.”

A day earlier, Biden had criticized plans from Netanyahu’s far-right government to overhaul Israel’s judiciary, which opponents say would limit Israeli courts’ oversight on the government and weaken the country’s democracy.

The proposal has already sparked nationwide protests in Israel. Several US Jewish organizations, including some that are staunchly supportive of Israel, have also spoken out against the plan.

Netanyahu delayed the judicial reform push on Monday in the wake of the mass demonstrations.

“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 on Tuesday when asked about the “health of democracy” in Israel.

“And I’ve sort of made that clear. 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.”

The US president added that he will not invite Netanyahu to the White House in the “near term”.

Netanyahu was quick to respond to Biden’s remarks. “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 wrote in a series of tweets.

But he called the US-Israel alliance “unbreakable”, adding that his administration is committed to “strengthening democracy by restoring the proper balance between the three branches of government, which we are striving to achieve via a broad consensus”.

Israel — accused of imposing apartheid on Palestinians by major human rights organizations, including Amnesty International — receives at least $3.8bn in US military aid annually.

Moreover, the US is Israel’s top diplomatic defender. Washington often uses its veto power and political leverage to block United Nations Security Council proposals to condemn Israeli abuses against Palestinians.

Despite Netanyahu’s rejection of Biden’s criticism, the White House’s Kirby said on Wednesday that “there’s a lot to like” about the Israeli prime minister’s statement about the judicial reforms, including Netanyahu’s assertion that he would seek consensus.

Although the Biden administration has previously issued statements against Netanyahu’s domestic policies as well as Israeli plans for settlement expansions in the occupied West Bank, US officials often reassert Washington’s commitment to Israel.

“We continue to support Israel’s security, and our commitment to Israel’s security and democracy continues to remain ironclad,” US Department of State spokesperson Vedant Patel said earlier this week.

“And we work with our Israeli partners on a number of issues, including Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

Asked whether Washington remains confident in Netanyahu’s leadership capabilities, Patel said: “I have no different assessment to offer.”