Mar 20, 2023 - World

Scoop: Biden tells Bibi he's never seen such anxiety over Israel's political situation

Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu in March 2010. Photo: Baz Ratner-Pool/Getty Images

Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu in March 2010. Photo: Baz Ratner-Pool/Getty Images

President Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in their call on Sunday that he was concerned about the Israeli government's judicial overhaul plan because in all the years he has followed Israel, he has never seen such a high level of domestic anxiety over the political situation in the country, two U.S. sources briefed on the call told Axios.

Why it matters: Sunday's call was the first time Biden directly discussed the controversial judicial overhaul plan with Netanyahu. It is rare that a U.S. president weighs in on domestic issues of one of the country's closest allies.

  • The judicial overhaul plan, presented by the most right-wing government in Israel's history, has deepened political divisions in Israel and prompted protests, including within the ranks of the Israeli military, against Netanyahu's government.
  • The Biden administration has expressed concerns over what the plan will mean for Israel's democracy.

Behind the scenes: During Sunday's call, Biden urged Netanyahu to reach a compromise and get a broad consensus on judicial reforms, according to a U.S. official.

  • Netanyahu told Biden that he is trying to solve the issue but needs time and space to do it, the two U.S. sources told Axios.
  • An Israeli official said Netanyahu told Biden he "doesn't want to fix one imbalance by creating another imbalance."
  • The White House and the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.
  • White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in an interview on Israel's Channel 13 that the purpose of Biden's call with Netanyahu was to discuss judicial reform.

State of play: After the call with Biden, Netanyahu held a meeting with the leaders of the ruling coalition parties, including Justice Minister Yariv Levin who was the key player in pushing the government’s plan to weaken the Supreme Court.

  • Following the meeting, Netanyahu’s office announced that most of the legislation that is part of the judicial plan would be postponed until after Passover, which takes place from April 5-13.
  • But the key element of the judicial plan — changing the process of appointing judges — will be brought to a final vote by the end of the Knesset session in the first week of April.
  • According to the coalition plan, six out of the 11 members on the committee that appoints judges to the Supreme Court will be from the ruling coalition, giving the government full control over the process.
  • The coalition will be able to appoint the next two Supreme Court judges and the new president of the high court by a simple majority in the committee, the plan states.
  • If implemented, it will be the first time since the committee was formed in 1953 that Supreme Court judges will be appointed by only politicians from the coalition.

What they're saying: The coalition statement portrayed the decision as “a softening” of the judicial overhaul plan and called on the opposition to use the postponement of part of the legislation in order to begin a dialogue.

  • But the leaders of the opposition and the organizers of the anti-government protests quickly rejected the new coalition plan and claimed it was a tactical maneuver aimed at trying to kill the nationwide protests while politicizing the Supreme Court.
  • The attorney general also warned on Monday that the new coalition plan will politicize the Supreme Court, hamper its independence and damage the status of the president of the Supreme Court.
  • The White House hasn’t commented on the new coalition plan.
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