WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Joe Biden said he remains concerned about the turmoil in Israel even after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paused legislation that would radically reform the judiciary. Biden also said he had no plans to meet Netanyahu anytime soon.
“Like many strong supporters of Israel I’m very concerned, and I’m concerned that they get this straight,” Biden said Tuesday when he was asked by reporters about the health of Israel’s democracy.
“They cannot continue down this road,” he said at a press conference that took place during a visit to Durham, North Carolina. “And I’ve sort of made that clear. Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can try to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen.”
Biden answered with an emphatic “No” when he was asked if he is inviting Netanyahu to the White House. “Not in the near term,” he said. That dampened an expectation that his ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, stoked on Tuesday morning when he said he expected Netanyahu to travel to Washington sometime after Passover. Nides later said there was no set date for such a visit.
Biden’s nixing a visit by Netanyahu anytime soon and his skepticism about Netanyahu’s good faith in suspending the legislation, which he said “remains to be seen,” is not the lowest point in U.S.-Israel relations. But it stands out because both men describe each other as friends of years’ standing.
Netanyahu, who according to Israeli media reports is anxious to receive a U.S. invitation, responded to Biden’s comments on Twitter by mentioning that relationship. “I have known President Biden for over 40 years, and I appreciate his longstanding commitment to Israel,” he tweeted. “The alliance between Israel and the United States is unbreakable and always overcomes the occasional disagreements between us.”
But, Netanyahu added in another tweet, “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 on Monday evening yielded to weeks of mass protests against his proposed reforms, which would sap the courts’ powers and independence, and said he would pause the legislation until May and would invite opposition leaders to negotiate modifications to the legislation. An initial negotiation took place Tuesday, but it is unclear what concessions Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition will be willing to make.
Biden administration officials have singled out a number of reasons why Biden is appalled at the legislation. Biden’s foreign policy stresses democratic values — the State Department is running a virtual “Summit for Democracy” this week — and rollbacks in democratic rights in one of the United States’ closest allies sounds a jarring dissonance with that policy. Israel’s courts are seen as a bulwark against the erosion of rights for vulnerable communities, including women, Arab, the LGBTQ community and non-Orthodox Jews.
Additionally, top Israeli security officials, including the defense minister, Yoav Galant, have said the deep divisions sowed among Israelis by the legislative push have created vulnerabilities that Israel’s enemies are eager to exploit. The Biden administration is counting on Israel to contain the ambitions of Iran, and has staged a number of joint military exercises with Israel in recent months.