(Bloomberg) --

The US and Israel clashed after President Joe Biden rebuked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration for its efforts to weaken the judiciary — a policy that’s ignited waves of protests and labor strikes.  

Months of unrest linked to the policy — which critics say will remove an important check on lawmakers — came to a head on Monday after Netanyahu fired his defense minister, and a nationwide walkout grounded many operations to a halt. That led to a climbdown, with Netanyahu suspending the legislation pending talks with the opposition over a potential compromise.

“I’m concerned that they get this straight — they cannot continue down this road,” Biden said Tuesday when asked whether he was worried about the health of Israel’s democracy. “Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he’s going to try to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen.”  

Netanyahu retorted with a defense of his government’s plan and a barb at the US — a key ally since Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence and a powerful force in shaping Middle East relations.

“My administration is committed to strengthening democracy by restoring the proper balance between the three branches of government, which we are striving to achieve via a broad consensus,” he said. “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.”

While Israeli politicians fumed over Biden’s remarks, a senior US official said relations are not in trouble. The US wanted the judicial overhaul to be halted and negotiations to begin, and that is what has happened, he said. There is no crisis and no increased tension, just the back-and-forth of a real relationship, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive political matters.

The upheaval in Israel puts Biden in an awkward position as Netanyahu prepares to participate in the White House’s virtual Summit for Democracy later Wednesday, discussing the economic benefits of that political system. 

Israel’s shekel has weakened 3.7% against the dollar in the past two months, though made up some ground Tuesday after Netanyahu’s rethink. 

Testing Relationship

The US-Israel relationship has been tested in recent years over disputes involving how to respond to Iran’s nuclear program and over the expansion of Israeli settlements into territory claimed by the Palestinians. In 2015, Netanyahu enraged the Barack Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice president, with a speech to a joint session of Congress criticizing the Iran nuclear agreement that Washington and its allies went on to sign.

That deal was later dismantled by Donald Trump, whose administration also brokered the groundbreaking Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and others.   

Recently, the White House condemned the Netanyahu government — the most right-wing and religious in Israel’s history — for repealing a law that barred settlers from areas of the West Bank that Israel evacuated in 2005. 

Asked if there were plans to invite Netanyahu to the White House, Biden said, “No. Not in the near term.” That contradicted a statement by the US ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, who had told Israel Army Radio earlier in the day that the two leaders would meet “quite soon.”



--With assistance from Justin Sink.

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