Mar 29, 2023 - World

Biden's private message to Bibi

Biden and Netanyahu at a press conference in Jerusalem in March 2016. Photo: Debbie Hill/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a strong private message to halt his government's judicial overhaul just hours before Netanyahu went on television and announced the suspension of the controversial plan, according to two U.S. sources briefed on the issue.

Why it matters: The White House for months has called on Netanyahu to ensure there was a broad consensus around the plan, but the private message reflects the tensions between the two allies — and just how worried Biden was and how engaged he became in trying to convince the Israeli leader to stop the legislation.

Behind the scenes: Netanyahu’s decision late Sunday to fire Defense Minister Yoav Gallant alarmed the White House and set in motion a flurry of consultations about possible U.S. reactions, a U.S. official said.

  • One idea was to cancel Netanyahu's invitation to participate in Biden's virtual "Democracy Summit" this week if the prime minister didn't halt the legislation, a U.S. source said.
  • The White House decided to issue a public National Security Council statement expressing concerns over the developments in Israel, as well as to deliver a private message directly to Netanyahu from Biden emphasizing that the U.S. president wanted the legislation to be halted, the U.S. sources said.
  • According to the sources, Biden's private message was stronger than the administration's public one. It was delivered by U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides to the Prime Minister's Office on Monday morning, the sources added.
  • An Israeli official said that several hours before Netanyahu gave his public announcement on Monday, the Prime Minister's Office notified Nides that the legislation would be suspended.
  • “The message the President referenced was the same message you’ve been hearing from us all along. We strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible," White House NSC spokesperson Adrienne Watson said.

The big picture: The growing tensions between the two allies spilled over into the public on Tuesday, when Biden appeared to confirm the private message, telling reporters the Israeli government "cannot continue down this road."

  • "I’ve sort of made that clear. … I did not [speak directly with Netanyahu]. I delivered a message through our ambassador," Biden said.
  • Biden told reporters Tuesday he still hopes Netanyahu "will walk away" from the judicial overhaul. He also made it clear that Netanyahu won't be invited to the White House anytime soon.
  • Biden’s public remarks, which showed the depth of the crisis between the two allies, created a political shock wave in Israel, with many of the opposition leaders attacking Netanyahu for putting the U.S.-Israeli relationship at risk.

Netanyahu fired back in an unusual statement released around 1am local time. "Israel is an independent country that takes decisions based on the will of its citizens and not based on external pressure, including from our best friends," he said.

  • On Wednesday morning, several Likud lawmakers and ministers went to Twitter and on the radio and attacked Biden. One went as far as to say Israel doesn’t need the U.S. for its security.

Yes, but: By Wednesday afternoon in Israel, Netanyahu tried to cool down tensions. His office ordered government ministers and Likud lawmakers to avoid any public statements about the relations with the U.S. other than using the statement he issued.

  • Two senior Netanyahu aides told Axios the prime minister doesn’t want a crisis with the Biden administration.
  • One of the aides said Netanyahu wants to reach a consensus on judicial reform that will put the issue behind us.
  • The second aide said Netanyahu wanted to calm down and stabilize the situation because he understands the reality and the security threats Israel faces.
  • Netanyahu continued to play down the crisis during his speech at the Democracy Summit on Wednesday. “Israel and the U.S. have had their occasional differences, but I want to assure you that the alliance between the world’s greatest democracy and a strong democracy in the heart of the Middle East — Israel — is unshakable. Nothing can change that," he said.
  • Netanyahu said he announced a “pause” in the legislation of the judicial overhaul to give a chance for getting a broad consensus. “We need to move from protest to agreement," he said.

What they're saying: Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is now a fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Axios that Biden is Netanyahu’s old friend and a deeply committed ally of Israel, but "he has left no doubt of what is at stake in the judicial overhaul: Israel's security, economy and reputation as a democracy with the checks and balances of an independent judiciary."

  • "That can damage U.S.-Israel relations, but also U.S. interests," Shapiro said.
  • He added that this U.S. message likely helped convince Netanyahu to put the legislation on hold.
  • “But the possibility remains that the negotiations for a consensus reform could fail and the overhaul that guts the Supreme Court could pass at any time. Under those circumstances, a meeting between Netanyahu and Biden, whose presidency is defined by defending democracy, is very difficult to manage," Shapiro said.
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