Jan 25, 2023 - World

Inside the Sullivan-Netanyahu meeting

White House national security adivser Jake Sullivan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem on Jan. 19.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem on Jan. 19. Photo: Handout/Israeli Government Press Office (GPO)/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan made it clear to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Thursday that the Biden administration is concerned about his judicial overhaul plan and the effect it might have on Israel’s democratic institutions, three senior U.S. and Israeli officials with knowledge of the meeting told Axios.

The big picture: When Sullivan prepared for his trip to Jerusalem, the new Israeli government’s judicial plan wasn’t at the top of his priorities for the meeting and many inside the administration didn’t think the U.S. should weigh in on it.

  • But as the internal debate in Israel escalated, the White House realized that there was a need to make clear where it stood on the plan, U.S. officials said.

Driving the news: Shortly before Sullivan landed in Israel last week, the Israeli Supreme Court revoked the appointment of Netanyahu's senior minister Aryeh Deri.

  • The government used the ruling to escalate its rhetoric against the Supreme Court and to stress that it backs up its grievances about the judicial system.
  • A senior U.S. official said the effects of the ruling was the central point on the Israeli domestic situation Herzog made during his meeting with Sullivan Wednesday evening.

During Sullivan and Netanyahu's meeting a day later, it was the prime minister who first raised his judicial plan and tried to explain it, the U.S. and Israeli officials said.

  • A U.S. official said Sullivan didn’t express his opinion about the details of the plan but gave a more general message about how it could affect the two countries' shared democratic values.
  • “Sullivan expressed to Netanyahu the importance of democratic institutions, separation of powers and rule of law, and the attributes that make democracies, like Israel's, uniquely thrive, and that we share," a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the conversation told Axios.
  • Israeli officials said one of the concerns raised by Sullivan was that even if this is not Netanyahu’s intention, pushing such a significant plan forward without dialogue and only through a parliamentary majority could look undemocratic.
  • Yaron Avraham of Israel’s Channel 12 reported that Netanyahu told Sullivan he wants to pass the plan through a wide consensus in the Knesset and that its final version won’t look as it looks today.

Between the lines: The State Department from the onset took a slightly different approach than the White House in talking about the plan.

  • Publicly, the State Department stressed the importance of Israel’s independent democratic institutions. Privately, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and his deputy, Wendy Sherman, expressed their concern about the plan to Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer and asked for clarifications, sources briefed on the meeting told Axios.

What to watch: Blinken is expected to arrive in the region over the weekend for a visit that will include stops in Egypt, Israel, the occupied West Bank and Jordan. This will be Blinken's first visit to Israel since the new Netanyahu government assumed office.

  • During his visit to Israel, Blinken is expected to continue the discussion with Netanyahu and other Israeli officials about the judicial plan.
  • “It created a debate within Israeli society & showed it's a vibrant democracy. Blinken would want to hear the view of people inside & outside the government," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs Barbara Leaf said in a briefing with reporters ahead of Blinken’s trip to the region.
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