WASHINGTON – It was an uncomfortable conversation between old friends.
When President Joe Biden spoke last weekend with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden relayed his concerns about a controversial plan that Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party are pushing to overhaul Israel’s judicial system and weaken the role of its Supreme Court.
Furor over the reforms spilled into the streets of Israel on Sunday, with tens of thousands of Israelis protesting outside parliament, workers launching a nationwide strike that paralyzed much of the country, and diplomats walking off the job at foreign ministries. The chaos followed Netanyahu’s firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who had called for a pause in the reforms.
Netanyahu announced on Monday that he would delay the proposal, saying he wanted “to avoid a civil war” and make time to seek a compromise.
Netanyahu’s handling of the judicial overhaul ignited not only a political crisis for Israel’s new government, which took office in late December. It has turned into a crucial test for Netanyahu’s relationship with Biden – and a domestic issue for Biden since a growing number of Democrats appear no longer willing to write Israel a blank check.
At the White House, administration officials stressed Monday that Biden feels a strong kinship with Israel and its people.
“U.S. support for Israeli security and democracy remains ironclad – that is continuing to be the case,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said. “But we will always have those honest and frank conversations with our partners, with our friends as well.”
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Biden and Netanyahu have, in fact, been friends and allies for years. They met four decades ago, when Biden was a Democratic senator from Delaware and Netanyahu was a young diplomat. Though both have spoken publicly about their respect and admiration for each other, their rapport has often been marked by awkward diplomatic slights and deep policy rifts.
The concern over Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms complicates their bond even further.
Biden’s unease about the reforms comes he prepares for next year’s presidential election and a possible rematch against Donald Trump, who cultivated close ties with Israel and Netanyahu before turning on Netanyahu at the end of his presidency.
Further muddling the picture for Biden is a sharp shift in Democrats’ attitudes toward Israel. Forty-nine percent of Democrats said in a Gallup poll taken in February that they sympathize with the Palestinians more than the Israelis. It’s the first time that a plurality had shown more affinity to the Palestinians.
Biden raised his concerns about Netanyahu’s judicial reforms during a phone call last weekend. Biden stressed the importance of checks and balances in democratic societies and that such a fundamental change should be pursued with the broadest base of public support, the White House said.
He also emphasized the importance of “democratic values” – a recurring theme for Biden, who campaigned for president warning of what he saw as a threat to democracy posed by many of Trump’s deeds. It’s a topic he has returned to frequently in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol and as he prepares for what is expected to be his bid for a second term.
On his call with Netanyahu, Biden raised his concerns “from a place of friendship and in deep respect for the democratic institutions that both our countries share,” said John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council.
“He has deep respect not only for Israel as a country with the Israeli people,” Kirby said.
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On Wednesday, Biden will host his second virtual Summit for Democracy involving leaders from 120 countries, civil society groups and executives from companies in the private sector. Israel has been invited to participate in the gathering, which will put a spotlight on democratic renewal and threats faced by democratic societies.
The White House deflected questions on whether Israel should be allowed to participate in the summit given Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms and the turmoil they have sparked. Additional details including the list of speakers could be released on Tuesday, Kirby said.
Biden and his administration have been stepping up their criticism of Netanyahu’s government not only over the judicial reforms but also on issues such as the expansion of Israeli settlements, said Nimrod Goren, senior fellow for Israeli affairs with the Middle East Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington.
“It’s clear that Biden wants to see regional stability maintained,” Goren said in a phone interview from Israel. “But It’s also clear that he’s concerned about the state of democracy in Israel. That is a pillar in the special relationship between Israel and the U.S.”
The Biden administration has been taking atypical steps in its relationship with Israel, Goren said, citing the decision to summon Mike Herzog, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., to the State Department last week to relay concerns over Israel’s passage of a law that would allow the resettlement of areas of the northern West Bank.
That meeting and Biden’s decision to raise concerns about the state of democracy in Israel illustrate that, despite their decades of friendship, there remains “a big gap” between Biden and Netanyahu.
“Biden is first and foremost a true friend of Israel,” he said. “It’s not about the personal connection to Netanyahu, but rather his commitment to the well-being of the State of Israel.”
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
Contributing: Maureen Groppe