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March 29, 2023 2:06 pm
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‘Crossed a Red Line’: Israeli Right Slams Biden Comments on Judicial Reform as War of Words Escalates

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avatar by Andrew Bernard

Then-Vice President Joe Biden with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, March 2016. Photo: US Embassy Tel Aviv/Wikimedia Commons.

Members of Israel’s Knesset from the governing right-wing coalition  slammed President Biden’s criticism of Israel’s judicial reforms on Wednesday, as rhetoric continued to escalate from both American and Israeli lawmakers.

“I feel that the statement given yesterday crossed a red line in the relationship between our two great countries. Friends do not act like this towards each other,” Likud MK Dan Illouz wrote in a letter addressed to the US Congress. “Please use all the tools at your disposal to make sure these types of problematic statements do not happen again.”

Israeli Minister of Culture and Sport Miki Zohar on Tuesday deleted a tweet accusing Biden of being a victim of “fake news” about the judicial reforms.

“It breaks my heart to see how much damage has been done to Israel from all the fake news that has been spread in connection with our justified legal reform,” Zohar wrote in a follow up after the deletion.

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Knesset Deputy Speaker Nassim Vaturi, also a Likud MK, questioned the reliability of the US-Israel security partnership in the wake of Biden’s comments and went so far as to accuse the Obama administration of having imposed an arms embargo during the 2014 war in Gaza that resulted in the deaths of Israeli troops. The Wall Street Journal in 2014 reported that the Obama administration had halted a military-to-military request for Hellfire missiles in order to individually scrutinize Israel’s arms shipments from the US.

The extraordinary pushback follows remarks President Biden made to the media on Tuesday that are among the sharpest criticisms that the US has yet made about Israel’s judicial reform proposals.

“Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned,” President Biden told the press Tuesday. “I’m concerned that they get this straight: They cannot continue down this road. And I 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.”

Asked if his comments constituted interference in Israel’s affairs, Biden said, “We’re not interfering. They know my position. They know America’s position. They know the American Jewish position.”

He added that he does not intend to invite Netanyahu to Washington “in the near term.”

Biden’s remarks prompted a late-night response from Netanyahu, whose office posted a statement after 1AM Israel time on Wednesday.

The statement said that Netanyahu appreciated Biden’s commitment to Israel and called the US-Israel alliance “unbreakable,” but pointedly added that “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.”

The question of foreign interference in the judicial reform process, including whether the US is actively supporting the opposition protests, has become a significant political issue. Yair Netanyahu, the adult son of the prime minister, has promoted allegations that the US is funding the protests, including through the NGO Movement for Quality Government.

That allegation was repeated by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in condemning Biden’s remarks Wednesday.

“Utterly disgraceful. Biden gleefully hosts anti-American radicals like [Brazilian President] Lula, while shunning close American allies like Netanyahu,” Cruz wrote on twitter. “It’s clear that Biden and his officials are high from funding what they believe to be successful anti-government protests in Israel.”

The State Department has rejected that premise.

“These accusations are completely and demonstratively false,” State Department Deputy Spokesman Vedant Patel said on Monday. “The Movement for Quality Government is an NGO, and it received a modest grant from the State Department that was initiated during the previous administration, and the latest disbursal of funds came in September of 2022 –  prior to the most recent Israeli elections. And this grant supported an educational program for Jerusalem schools that supplemented their civic studies curriculum.”

Speaking remotely Wednesday morning at the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy 2023, Netanyahu seemed to strike a more conciliatory tone.

“I want to thank the world leaders and President Biden, who’s been a friend of 40 years,” Netanyahu said. “Israel and the United States have had their occasional differences, but I want to assure you that the alliance between the world’s greatest democracy and a strong, proud and independent democracy – Israel – in the heart of the Middle East is unshakable. Nothing can change that.”

Israel’s opposition leader Yair Lapid Wednesday presented a different view.

“For decades Israel was the USA’s closest ally,” Lapid wrote. “The most extreme government in the country’s history spoiled that in three months.”

 

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