U.S. Dismisses Claims of Cooling Israel Ties

National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby speaks at a press briefing at the White house. (EPA/Yuri Gripas)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Wednesday brushed aside criticism of his judicial overhaul plan from President Joe Biden, saying the matter was an internal Israeli issue and would not be influenced by outside pressure.

The comments between the two close allies stressed the lukewarm relationship between the Biden administration and Netanyahu’s new government. It also marked the latest sign of cooling ties between Israel and the Democratic Party.

Asked about the legislation on Tuesday, Biden told reporters, “I hope he walks away from it.” He said Netanyahu’s government “cannot continue down this road” and called for a compromise. He also said there were no immediate plans for a White House visit, saying, “No, not in the near term”

Netanyahu responded with a statement expressing appreciation for Biden’s years of support for Israel and vowing to seek a “broad consensus” over the legal program. But he also dismissed the outside pressure. “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.” Members of his coalition reacted even more harshly, saying Biden had no business interfering in an internal Israeli matter.

Israel “is not another star in the American flag,” said National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Power party. “I expect the U.S. President to understand this point.”

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby tried to play down the disagreements, saying Biden’s comments about the judicial overhaul plan have remained “completely consistent.” He also dismissed suggestions they caused tensions in an “unshakeable” relationship. “The great thing about a deep friendship is you can be that candid with one another,” Kirby said.

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, who enjoyed good ties with Biden during a brief period as caretaker prime minister last year, accused Netanyahu of harming Israel’s most important relationship. “For decades, Israel was the USA’s closest ally,” Lapid wrote on social media. “The most radical government in the country’s history ruined that in three months.”

That relationship, however, has been repeatedly tested in recent years by a growing partisan divide in the U.S. over support for Israel. Netanyahu has long been seen as favoring the Republicans over the Democrats.

Netanyahu had several public spats with the Obama administration over Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear issue. In 2015, he infuriated the White House by addressing Congress to rail against a U.S.-led nuclear deal between world powers and Iran.

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