PM Binyamin Netanyahu overplayed his hand by counting on his bowing on Tuesday, March 28 to a short pause in legal legislation and dialogue with its opponents for getting him out of the woods in Washington – or indeed the streets of Israel. This was obvious by the end of the day when US President Joe Biden, mincing no words, said in a speech in North Carolina that he was “very concerned” about the [reform] plan and hopes Netanyahu “would walk away from it… They cannot continue down this road,” he said. To drive the message home, Biden said that Netanyahu won’t be invited to the White House in the “near term.”
This was a blow indeed from a friend of 40 years to an Israeli leader who had been at home in Washington in recent years.
The prime minister, if not quite yet in the doghouse, was now on probation with Israel’s best friend. To regain the good graces of the Biden administration, Netanyahu would have to walk back, i.e., bury the new laws designed to curb the powers of the High Court vis a vis the government and Knesset and control the choice of judges. He would also have to reinstate Yoav Galant whom he sacked as defense minister in a fit of pique for warning the nation of the grave security dangers posed by the reform.
Biden’s conditions for Netanyahu replicate the demands hurled by hundreds of thousands of protesters week after week across the country. Unappeased by the start of dialogue, they refuse to abandon their campaign until the legal reform plan is axed for good.
Netanyahu’s response to the American president was defiant: “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including the best of friends.”
He was echoed by extremist ministers, who hold a gun at the prime minister’s head as masers of the coalition’s parliamentary majority and are dead against compromise on the legal overhaul plan. Education Minister Yoav Kish of the ruling Likud: “We all respect the US president who has every right to his opinion. But with all due respect, Israel is a sovereign country and its decisions are taken right here.” Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir went further: “Israel is not another star on the American flag.”
Biden’s rebuke cast a cloud over the Netanyahu government’s future. The US President has clearly thrown his support behind the opposition factions, who joined government officials on Tuesday night for their first real thrashing out of a compromise for resolving the ferocious conflict bitterly dividing the nation. President Yaacov Herzog is sponsoring the faceoff.
However, the camp opposing the judicial overhaul plan, backed from the clamor invading the streets, has now been endorsed by the US president in its bid to kill the plan stillborn before it makes it to a Knesset vote in three months. Netanyahu is also put on notice to restore Galant to the defense ministry, after his dismissal rocked the prime minister’s credibility as guardian of national security. Galant, only two months on the job, was supported by heads of the military and won good marks during his talks with US defense officials in Washington.
If Netanyahu believes that by a short pause in legislation and letting negotiations go forward under Herzog’s aegis, he will have won the chance of a breather to repair the damage to his standing and popularity, a harsh hint came last week from a high Israeli official in London. The official disclose without offering details that the Biden administration had twice recently attempted to unseat Netanyahu as prime minister.
How the wily Netanyahu hopes to maneuver his way out of this dark corridor is yet to be seen. The bad vibes coming from Washington will certainly remind him that this was not the first such attempt in the history of the relationship that an administration sought to get rid of a disobedient Israeli leader. In 1975, Yitzhak Rabin refused to join negotiations with the Arabs. He was pushed against the wall by the US cutoff of arms and funds transfers.
This time round, a decision by Biden to punish Netanyahu would have real fallout on the close military and defense cooperation between the two countries. Israel’s ability to terminate Iran’s drive for a nuclear bomb would be seriously set back.