Slammed at home, Netanyahu forges ahead on Iran and cementing US, Mid East ties

Unruffled by the storm of criticism besetting his government’s first steps, notably radical judicial reform, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is preparing to welcome top US administration officials to discuss his top priority issues, the potential for joint – or possibly collective action – against Iran and the inception of normal relations with more Arab governments after the Abraham accords: Saudi Arabia is next in line. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan arrives in Jerusalem next week, likely followed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken next month with arrangements for Netanyahu’s first trip to Washington since taking up his 6th term as prime minister last month. On Monday, Ron Dermer, former ambassador to Washington, was due in the US capital for meetings at the White House and state department. A close confidant, the prime minister has made Dermer points man for strategic ties with the US and in the region.

Ahead of his trip, Sullivan said: “The first thing that I intend to convey is the fact that the United States is absolutely committed to Israel’s security, and that’s not going to change. President Biden has been a fundamental and stalwart supporter of the State of Israel for as long as he’s been in public service. Second, “we’re going to talk through the challenges and opportunities in the Middle East region… including the threat posed by Iran… and opportunities for deepening integration between Israel and its neighbors.”

But the two governments remain divided on the Palestinian issue. The Biden administration will “continue to support the two-state solution, and we will oppose policies and practices that undermine the viability of the two-state solution or that cut hard against the historic status quo in Jerusalem,” said the US official. “And I will be clear and direct on those points.”

On this issue, the US is challenged by a large segment of the Netanyahu government coalition: the most vocal being two powerful far-right ministers, Otzma Yehudit Itamar Ben-Dvir, public security minister, with jurisdiction over the police border guard force which shares responsibility for counter-terror action with the IDF; and Religious Zionist leader, Bezalel Smotrich who is pushing for annexation of historic parts of Judea and Samaria and control of administration there. Both are supported by far-right elements of the prime minister’s Likud party and the ultrareligious Shas. However, the two nationalist leaders committed during coalition talks to refrain from placing obstacles in the path of joint US-Israel action on Iran or related security issues.

Emphasizing differences on the Palestinian issue, US State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday condemned the “unilateral” sanctions that will “exacerbate tensions” approved by the Israeli government against the Palestinian Authority over Ramallah’s successful effort to haul Israel’s conduct in its territories before the International war crimes Court.

In comparison, Washington’s response to the government’s judicial reform program, which has stirred up a storm of criticism and protest in Israel, was relatively mild. “As a general matter, Israel’s independent institutions are crucial to upholding the country’s thriving democracy, and our shared democratic values are at the heart of our bilateral relationship,” read a statement from the US State Department.

Netanyahu defended the judicial overhaul bill presented by Justice Minister Yoram Levin last Wednesday as a necessary and publicly endorsed move to rebalance political and judicial power. “What we are trying to do is return Israel to the correct balance” between political and judicial authorities, Netanyahu said, claiming that his government’s reforms will separate Israel’s powers in a manner similar to systems practiced in the United States and European countries. The multi-point plan to increase political power over the judiciary “doesn’t destroy democracy,” but rather “rehabilitates” it, he said.

Speaking at the outset of Likud’s weekly Knesset faction meeting, Netanyahu added that “we got a clear mandate from the public to execute” plans his coalition previewed during elections, including judicial reform. “

Key opposition figures called on Israelis to take to the streets to fight against what they called “democracy-destroying” measures, “neo-fascism,” and “ultranationalism.” Opposition leader, former defense minister Benny Gantz called the reform Netanyahu’s “coup d’etat” and accused him of creating conditions for “civil war.” He called on the people to fight against the judicial overhaul and “make the street shake.”  The PM rejected Gantz’s earlier proposal for a bipartisan panel to work on the reform bill.

The Levin reform plan restricts the High Court’s the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, introducing an “override clause” enabling the Knesset by a 61 majority to re-enact those laws: The two Bar Association lawyers on the committee for the selection of judges are replaced by representatives chosen by the government; subjective definitions such as “reasonableness” are annulled as grounds for ruling out legislation and government decisions. Cabinet ministers will be allowed to appoint their department’s legal advisers, who will no longer be obliged to defer to the attorney general.

The reform program faces a turbulent debate in the Knesset in the coming weeks as well as street protests.

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