Netanyahu, Biden exchange frosty words over Israel legal overhaul

JERUSALEM (AP): Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday rebuffed President Joe Biden’s suggestion that the premier “walks away” from a contentious plan to overhaul the legal system, saying the country makes its own decisions.

The exchange was a rare bout of public disagreement between the two close allies and signals building friction between Israel and the US over Netanyahu’s judicial changes, which he postponed after massive protests.

Asked by reporters late Tuesday what he hopes the premier does with the legislation, Biden replied, “I hope he walks away from it.” The president added that Netanyahu’s government “cannot continue down this road” and urged compromise on the plan roiling Israel. The president also stepped around US Ambassador Thomas Nides’ suggestion that Netanyahu would soon be invited to the White House, saying, “No, not in the near term.”

Netanyahu replied that Israel is sovereign and “makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”

The frosty exchange came a day after Netanyahu called for a halt to his government’s contentious legislation “to avoid civil war” in the wake of two consecutive days of mass protests that drew tens of thousands of people to Israel’s streets.

“Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can try to work out some genuine compromise. But that remains to be seen,” Biden said to reporters as he left North Carolina to return to Washington.

Netanyahu and his religious and ultranationalist allies announced the judicial overhaul in January just days after forming their government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history.

The proposal has plunged Israel into its worst domestic crisis in decades. Business leaders, top economists and former security chiefs have all come out against the plan, saying it is pushing the country toward dictatorship.

The plan would give Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, and his allies the final say in appointing the nation’s judges. It would also give parliament, which is controlled by his allies, authority to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit the court’s ability to review laws.

Critics say the legislation would concentrate power in the hands of the coalition in parliament and upset the balance of checks and balances between branches of government.

Netanyahu said he was “striving to achieve via a broad consensus” in talks with opposition leaders that began Tuesday.

Yair Lapid, the opposition leader in Israel’s parliament, wrote on Twitter that Israel was the US’s closest allies for decades but “the most radical government in the country’s history ruined that in three months.”