White House scales up ‘concern’ rhetoric, marking rare involvement in Israeli domestic affairs
By Kevin Liptak, Jeremy Diamond and Phil Mattingly, CNN
A week after President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to urge him to find a compromise on his planned judicial reforms, events on the ground in Israel continue to generate deep concern inside the White House — particularly as Biden prepares to highlight global democracy during a major summit this week.
As protests in Israel have intensified, the Biden administration has steadily scaled up its rhetoric on the situation, including saying Sunday, it was watching with “concern” after Netanyahu fired his defense minister who spoke out in opposition to the proposed reforms.
“Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support,” a statement from the US National Security Council said.
The statement, which also repeatedly urged “compromise” in the judicial reform, also marked a rare moment of the US weighing in on the domestic affairs of another country — let alone those of a close ally like Israel. But heavy opposition to the proposed reforms among US-based pro-Israel groups has given the White House more leeway to insert itself into the debate.
On Monday, it appeared Netanyahu had agreed to put the judicial overhaul legislation on hold until the next session of the Knesset, after the Passover recess in April. Yet in announcing the delay, Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir insisted the judicial overhaul legislation would still come to a vote in parliament’s summer term.
The White House has been “very clear” in both public and private about its concerns over Israel’s proposed judicial overhaul, a top US official said Monday.
“We remain deeply concerned by recent developments, which further underscore need in our view for compromise,” said John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
As of Monday morning, Biden himself has yet to speak publicly about the matter, preferring to voice his concern directly to Netanyahu, including during their phone call last weekend. He declined to answer questions about Israel as he returned to the White House on Sunday evening.
A US official said Biden is likely to have another call with Netanyahu in the coming days. But the official also cautioned the timing was fluid as the administration takes stock of a set of domestic political dynamics that present risks for anything that could be viewed as an overt effort to drive or dictate the path ahead.
A senior administration official said there had been “lots of communication” between US and Israeli officials amid the political upheaval in Israel.
Most Jewish American organizations and pro-Israel groups have voiced concerns about Netanyahu’s judicial reform proposals, urging compromise alongside the White House. Most of those groups have been supportive of the White House’s increasingly forceful rhetoric and heartened that the administration has not taken steps to alter the diplomatic and security relationship with Israel.
Some progressive groups, though, have called on the Biden administration to come out more forcefully against Netanyahu’s plans, arguing the weight of the American presidency could help sway events.
“At a time when the Netanyahu government continues to press ahead with acts of annexation and deepening occupation, as well as with its anti-democratic assault on Israel’s independent judiciary and the rule of law, the US needs to stand up firmly for shared interests and democratic values,” wrote J Street, a liberal pro-Israel advocacy group in Washington.
More than 90 House Democrats wrote to Biden earlier this month urging him to strongly condemn the judicial proposals.
“With the Knesset on the cusp of stripping the judiciary’s check over the current government, we urge you to make clear that the US will firmly oppose any moves toward annexation that the Israeli government may pursue as a result,” the letter read. “We thank you for your work and again urge you to use all diplomatic tools at your disposal to address this grave situation.”
Biden, who has known Netanyahu for decades, has sought a less confrontational approach, at least in public. The recent phone call between Biden and Netanyahu was “candid and constructive,” one official said, with the president encouraging his Israeli counterpart to seek a compromise plan to the judicial reforms.
Biden was “very forthright” in the conversation in “reiterating that democratic societies are strengthened by the whole idea of checks and balances,” according to Kirby. He “stressed the need for Prime Minister Netanyahu to find a way forward that was based on compromise and could result in that consensus support” and approached the call “from a position of respect and friendship for Israel,” Kirby said.
Biden warned Netanyahu that many Americans, spanning the political divide, were concerned about the proposed reforms, a second official said.
The hope, according to several people familiar with the matter, was that with Biden’s encouragement Netanyahu would forge a different path with the proposals, either by agreeing to compromises or withdrawing from the plan altogether.
In the days following the phone call, however, it became clear Netanyahu would press forward with his plans, prompting mass protests and strikes.
Symbolically, the White House has signaled its displeasure with Netanyahu’s government by withholding an invitation for Oval Office talks following Netanyahu’s return to power in December.
It’s rare for a new Israeli prime minister to go this long without an invite for a White House meeting. By comparison, Naftali Bennett visited the White House only a month and a half after taking office in 2021.
Israel has, however, been invited to participate in this week’s Summit for Democracy, a Biden-hosted event meant to highlight threats to democracy. It’s the second such event Biden has hosted since taking office.
US officials familiar with the planning said that there are no plans to change Netanyahu’s participation in the event as of now. Netanyahu is scheduled to partake in the summit on Wednesday, though he is not listed on the public schedule of the event.
White House officials say even though fears of democratic backsliding are growing in Israel, the summit is intended to highlight efforts to strengthen democracies.
“We made our invitation decisions on the basis of political will,” NSC Senior Director for Democracy and Human Rights Rob Berschinski said last week. “We recognize that governments are in different places in terms of perhaps advancing in some regards and taking controversial steps with respect to democracy in their countries in other regards.”
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CNN’s Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.