Jul 18, 2023 - World

Inside Biden's call with Israel's Netanyahu

Side by side photos of President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photos: Win McNamee and Sean Gallup.Getty Images

When President Biden urged Benjamin Netanyahu in their call Monday to try and get broad consensus for his judicial overhaul legislation, the Israeli prime minister claimed the opposition was unwilling to negotiate, three U.S. and Israeli officials briefed on the call told Axios.

State of play: It doesn’t appear that Netanyahu’s answer convinced Biden. The White House stressed after the call that the president doesn’t have fewer concerns about the legislation Netanyahu is pushing to weaken the Supreme Court and other democratic institutions.

  • The call between Biden and Netanyahu lasted about 25 minutes and both Israeli and U.S. officials described it as friendly. It touched on everything from the judicial overhaul to possible Saudi-Israel normalization to a Biden-Netanyahu meeting in the U.S., the officials say.
  • The Israeli Prime Minister’s office and the White House declined to comment.

Behind the scenes: Biden told Netanyahu that he wasn't going to interfere in Israeli politics but stressed that he believes there is a need for a broad consensus around the judicial overhaul, U.S. and Israeli officials said.

  • Two of the sources briefed on the call said Biden told Netanyahu he isn't the only one concerned about where the prime minister was taking Israel, many Americans are too.
  • U.S. and Israeli officials said Netanyahu replied that he had made a commitment to his coalition partners to pass the bill that would limit the Supreme Court from reviewing government decisions on the basis of "reasonableness." That piece of legislation could become law as soon as next week.
  • “The Prime Minister has also been very clear in the call about some of his own political maneuvering room," a U.S. official said.

Netanyahu told Biden that he doesn't see the proposed bill as a big deal and that he is not going to take other steps to promote judicial reform until October, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.

  • Netanyahu added that he would like to try getting a consensus but he has no one to talk to on the other side because, he claimed, the opposition is afraid of the protest movement and takes an extreme position, the U.S. and Israeli officials said.

Reality check: The opposition suspended the talks with the government over the judicial overhaul a few weeks ago after Netanyahu tried to conduct a parliamentary maneuver to delay the formation of the committee that appoints judges.

  • In retaliation, Netanyahu announced he is resuming the legislation unilaterally.

The big picture: U.S. and Israeli officials said Biden also told Netanyahu that there is an opportunity to get a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia but it is going to become harder if the tensions in the occupied West Bank continue to escalate.

  • One source briefed on the call said Biden told Netanyahu normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia could be “a game-changing deal” but stressed there was a need to set the right conditions and context in the West Bank. Netanyahu agreed, the source said.
  • Biden also raised concerns about settlement expansion, the U.S. and Israeli officials said. Netanyahu claimed that most of the recent announcements about expanding settlements in the West Bank involved planning, not actual building. He added that there aren’t going to be any more plans approved by the end of the year, the sources said.

The intrigue: Since the call took place there have been contradicting accounts from Israeli and U.S. officials about whether President Biden invited Netanyahu to the White House for a meeting.

  • A senior Israeli official with direct knowledge of the call said Biden spoke specifically about a meeting at the White House and not on the sidelines of the UN general assembly, as some had speculated.
  • Israeli national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel's Channel 12 news on Tuesday that Biden invited Netanyahu to the White House in September.
  • U.S. officials, however, haven't confirmed Biden invited Netanyahu or that he specifically mentioned a meeting at the White House, but only said the president and the prime minister would meet in the U.S. sometime in the fall.
  • “They spoke about the need to meet before the end of the year the next time Netanyahu is in the U.S. but didn’t really decide anything. They said: ''Let's work on that,'" a U.S. official told Axios.
  • It's been seven months since Netanyahu was sworn in.

What to watch: Israeli President Isaac Herzog is meeting Biden at the White House on Tuesday. It's Herzog’s second visit to the White House in the last year.

  • Herzog is also scheduled to give a speech in front of a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.
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