Israel’s Netanyahu rejects Biden’s call to ‘walk away’ from judicial overhaul

The Guardian  /  March 29, 2023

Prime minister praises US president’s commitment to Israel but will not be swayed by ‘pressures from abroad’.

Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed Joe Biden’s call to “walk away” from a proposed judicial overhaul that has led to massive protests across Israel, with the Israeli prime minister responding that he does not make decisions based on pressure from abroad.

Netanyahu on Monday delayed the proposal after large numbers of people spilled into the streets. The White House initially suggested Netanyahu should seek a compromise but the US president went further in taking questions from reporters on Tuesday. “I hope he walks away from it,” Biden said.

“Like many strong supporters of Israel I’m very concerned … They cannot continue down this road, and I’ve sort of made that clear,” Biden told reporters during a visit to North Carolina.

“Hopefully the prime minister [Netanyahu] will act in a way that he will try to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen,” Biden said, adding he was not considering inviting the Israeli leader to the White House, at least “not in the near term”. Previously, the US ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, told local radio that Netanyahu was expected to be invited “as soon as their schedules can be coordinated”.

Netanyahu quickly issued a statement in response: “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.

“I have known President Biden for over 40 years, and I appreciate his longstanding commitment to Israel,” Netanyahu said. He said the Israel-US alliance was unbreakable “and always overcomes the occasional disagreements between us”.

“My 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.”

On Tuesday evening, Israel’s far-right government and opposition parties held a first meeting on the judiciary proposals. “After about an hour-and-a-half, the meeting, which took place in a positive spirit, came to an end,” President Isaac Herzog’s office said late Tuesday. “Tomorrow, President Isaac Herzog will continue the series of meetings,” it added.

It comes amid scenes of chaos in Israeli politics, with questions over whether Yoav Gallant, the Defence minister fired by Netanyahu, is refusing to step down and concerns the prime minister may have promised too much to far-right politicians in exchange for a deal aimed at quelling nationwide demonstrations.

Netanyahu dismissed Gallant for breaking ranks and openly calling for a halt to the overhaul. However, aides to Gallant said he would remain in his post, asserting he had never been formally notified. Spokespeople for Netanyahu and his party, Likud, made no immediate comment.

Amid a surge in protests, Netanyahu announced in a speech on Monday a delay to his proposals, saying he wanted time to seek a compromise with political opponents. The move temporarily placated seething anger, with the main labour union calling off its strike after his speech and Israeli streets mostly quiet on Tuesday.

The speech ended a tense day in which hospitals, universities, seaports and the international airport in effect shut down in protest at the judicial changes, which many see as a neutering of judges’ power to hold the government to account. Late in the day, government supporters assaulted television crews and Arab people.

Nides told local radio on Tuesday he welcomed the move to delay the bill, joking that after the speech he “had a nice night of sleep”.

Later on Tuesday, questions were being raised over Netanyahu’s control over and credibility within his governing coalition, which includes a mixture of rightwing nationalists, religious leaders and far-right figures.

Netanyahu managed to pacify the national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the most ardent supporter of the judicial reform bill from the far-right Jewish Power party, only by agreeing to the formation of a “national guard” under Ben-Gvir’s control.

While there were questions over whether Netanyahu had made an empty promise, critics decried plans for what they described as a militia. “The prime minister has bribed the extreme right via a promise to create a militia that would endanger Israeli citizens – particularly the anti-coup protesters – as long as his government survives,” the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper wrote in an editorial. It called on Israelis to “keep up the pressure on Netanyahu until he scraps the coup”.

Protest organizers have promised to continue to hold rallies.

With Oliver Holmes and Reuters