It was an unusually pointed exchange of comments between an American President and an Israeli prime minister.
Joe Biden told reporters Wednesday afternoon that Benjamin Netanyahu wouldn’t be coming to the White House “in the near term” and that he hopes Netanyahu “walks away” from the divisive judiciary overhaul effort that had brought Israel to a standstill.
Within hours, Netanyahu brushed Biden back. He took to Twitter with a retort that Israel is “a sovereign country” that makes “its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”
It was the most visible sign of how the relationship between Biden and Netanyahu has turned markedly icy, a development that could have widespread implications for the role of both countries, particularly in the Middle East. It’s been three months since Netanyahu was named Prime Minister for the third time. He has yet to visit Washington since his swearing in in December, a rare absence for a newly elected Israeli leader.
“Any Israeli Prime Minister wants to have an early visit to Washington to coordinate with the President,” says Daniel Shapiro, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and the US ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017, who noted that both leaders would want to work to get on the same page on a long list of pressing issues, including “the threat Iran poses and how to address it.”
Netanyahu’s latest return to power has been overshadowed by the deal he had to make with Israel’s extreme-right parties to get there, including a promise to push for increasing executive control of the judicial branch. That move raised alarm bells throughout Israel that it would undermine the checks and balances among the country’s branches of government.
It also rattled Biden’s inner circle.
Biden has long considered himself a close friend of Israel, from his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to his time as Vice President, when he was tapped to smooth over the tensions between President Obama and Netanyahu, who was in the midst of a previous stint as prime minister, over the U.S. effort to advance a nuclear deal with Iran.
Netanyahu’s plan to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court sparked weeks of massive protests and debilitating work stoppages. On Monday, Netanyahu announced he was backing off the overhaul for now, yet signaled he still intended to move forward with the plan at a later date. That leaves Netanyahu’s bid to hold on to power on a collision course not only with much of the Israeli public, but also with Biden. The face-off threatens to strain US-Israel relations.
Read more: What the Protests in Israel Ignore
“Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned. And I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road,” Biden told reporters Wednesday afternoon under the wing of Air Force One, as the President finished up a visit to a semiconductor maker in North Carolina.
The split comes at a critical time in the Middle East. Israel and the US have close security ties, sharing information on terrorist threats, as well as Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last week that Iran could generate a nuclear weapon in several months, if it decided to produce the fissile material. US forces have recently exchanged strikes with militants in Syria affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
During a phone call on March 19, Biden told Netanyahu that democratic values are “a hallmark” of the US-Israel relationship, and that “democratic societies are strengthened by genuine checks and balances,” according to a White House description of the call. The two haven’t spoken since.
One sign of the amount of work and coordination that’s still going on between the two governments is the number of senior Biden Administration officials who have visited the country in recent months. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited Israel in January, weeks after Netanyahu took office, as did CIA director Bill Burns and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Milley was in Israel in early March. Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s close advisor and Minister of Strategic Affairs, has also made multiple trips to Washington since the start of the year. But Netanyahu hasn’t visited the Oval Office since Donald Trump was President and there’s no plans at this point for him to do so.
“Had it not been for some of Netanyahu’s policies, I suspect you would have had an early invitation for Netanyahu to visit the White House,” says Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department senior advisor for Arab-Israeli negotiations. “Joe Biden is in love with the idea of Israel. He is not in love with Benjamin Netanyahu.”
It’s unclear if Netanyahu will change course on his efforts to weaken Israel’s judiciary or if he intends to press forward, hoping his pause will deflate the energy behind the protests. Along with concerns that the overhaul would weaken the country’s democracy, the changes could also benefit Netanyahu personally. He is facing a corruption trial in Israel, and giving the executive branch more authority over the country’s judiciary would give him more power to seat judges that could rule on cases involving him.
Netanyahu in recent years has tended to steer toward conflict, not away from it. In 2019, I interviewed him for a TIME cover story on the cusp of his becoming Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Sitting on couches inside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, Netanyahu admitted he had few hobbies, aside from smoking a cigar at the end of the day, and reading history books in his spare time. He noted he had recently read The Lessons of History, by Will and Ariel Durant and recommended it. The No. 1 lesson he took away from the book was that turning the other cheek may not be a winning strategy in the annals of time. “History does not favor Christ over Genghis Khan,” he told TIME.
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