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Biden losing patience with Netanyahu over judicial overhaul, democratic values

After statements by several senior US officials criticizing Israel’s judicial overhaul plan, it was President Joe Biden himself that scolded Benjamin Netanyahu and urged him to forge a compromise in Israel.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) sits with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a dinner at the Prime Minister's residence March 9, 2010 in Jerusalem, Israel. Biden, visiting Israel as part of U.S.-led efforts to restart Middle East peace talks, on Tuesday condemned Israel's plans for 1,600 new homes in an area of the occupied West Bank it has annexed to Jerusalem. (Photo by Baz Ratner-Pool/Getty Images)

US President Joe Biden called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, for what an unnamed senior administration official described as a "candid and constructive" conversation.

The phone call lasted 30 minutes. Netanyahu’s office said the conversation focused on “the Iran threat and expansion of the peace circle” with the Arab world. “[President Biden] underscored his belief that democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship, that democratic societies are strengthened by genuine checks and balances, and that fundamental changes should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support,” a detailed statement issued by the White House read.

The US statement is clearly credible. Those privy to the contents of the conversation say Biden gave Netanyahu a civics lesson and even offered US help in resolving Israel’s domestic crisis, much as he would to the last of the authoritarian leaders. Winding up the call, the two leaders promised to “keep in touch.” At best, the call could be perceived as an insult to Netanyahu, who won elections almost five months ago and is still waiting for an invitation to the White House. He can but hope that next time Biden will not end their conversation with the words, "Don’t call us, we’ll call you."

The Biden administration is at a wit's end. Judging by the phone call and other statements by senior American officials on the internal developments in Israel, it has little idea how to deal with this explosive, unprecedented crisis shaking its close ally.

Biden had intended to focus much of his foreign policy on tensions with China and the gradual US pullout from the Middle East toward southeast Asia, until he was confronted with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Israel — a stable and prosperous albeit unruly ally — was nowhere on his agenda. Never in the Jewish state’s 75-year history has a US administration had to question Israel’s democratic underpinnings and the democratic values shared by the two countries, nor has a US president ever openly expressed his views on a domestic crisis. Biden is confronting just such doubts.

Not only is the elected Israeli government rushing to adopt deep constitutional changes designed to weaken the country’s top court and blur the separation of powers, its members are proving to be dangerous arsonists.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich had barely finished uttering an apology to a Washington audience for urging the annihilation of the Palestinian village of Huwara, when he lit another fire — this time before a Jewish audience in Paris on March 19. Standing against the backdrop of a map showing the State of Israel extending eastward to include the sovereign territory of Jordan, the leader of the Religious Zionism party regurgitated an ambition nurtured by the Revisionist forefathers of today’s Likud party advocating for a Greater Land of Israel. This ideology was long considered defunct, until Smotrich came along. He also went on to opine that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.”

This is the finance minister of the start-up nation, a member of the government’s security Cabinet who also wields newly granted authority over running the civilian affairs of many West Bank Palestinians. Even as he spoke in Paris, senior representatives of his government, among them national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi were meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh with senior Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian officials in a bid to calm West Bank violence ahead of the month of Ramadan.

“They insist on setting fire on all fronts at once,” a Western diplomat serving in the region told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity on Monday.

With US Ambassador Tom Nides having failed in persistent attempts to douse the flames, the US administration is said to be weighing its longstanding automatic veto of anti-Israel resolutions by the UN Security Council. President Barack Obama was the only US leader in recent memory to avoid a US veto of a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements, on the eve of his departure from office. Biden may wish to follow the example of his former boss given the attitude of the current government that has been giving him more grief in recent months than Obama was forced to swallow throughout his two terms.

The Biden administration is mulling whether to step up its public pronouncements against the highly controversial Israeli legislative blitz. A highly coveted Netanyahu White House invitation is not in the cards at this stage. Biden wants to wait for the dust to settle on the tectonic struggle between pro-democracy forces and the government and its Knesset coalition.

Behind the scenes, heavy pressure is being exerted on top Israeli officials and Netanyahu himself. Much of it is directed at Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s special envoy and former ambassador to Washington, as well as at Israeli Ambassador Mike Herzog. Netanyahu cannot help but see the writing on the wall, but keeps ignoring it. The extremists in his own government and coalition scare him more.

Sanity appeared to prevail for a brief moment on Monday, when Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, the Biden administration’s point man in the Netanyahu government, appeared to temper his support for the judicial overhaul. Media leaks claimed Gallant had threatened to quit if the legislative stampede was not moderated in agreement with the opposition. Looking back, this appears to have been a calculated move by Gallant and Netanyahu to mobilize support for more moderate proposals from the militants in his government and coalition — Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chair Simcha Rotman and the two ultra-Orthodox parties.

But Gallant stepped back into line once the Likud’s Knesset faction approved a seemingly moderated version of the legislation late last week. The pro-democracy opposition views this new outline as a fraudulent exercise and delaying tactic.

The days ahead will be particularly fateful. Next week, the Knesset is scheduled to adopt a proposed change giving the coalition control of judicial appointments to the High Court, the crux of the so-called legislative reform. If the Knesset votes in favor of changing the makeup of the judicial appointments committee, the protests are likely to escalate to new heights and the movement of officers and soldiers refusing to show up for reserve duty is likely to expand.

Gallant has already warned Netanyahu that under such circumstances, he could no longer guarantee the integrity of the Israel Defense Forces. “A state that values life cannot tolerate such phenomena and we will not tolerate them,” Netanyahu, clearly shaken by this spreading wave of disobedience, said on Sunday.

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