The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden-Netanyahu spat bursts into full view

President says Israelis ‘cannot continue down this road’; Netanyahu rejects ‘pressures from abroad,’ as political reverberations ripple inside both countries

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Biden, seen in Switzerland in 2016 when Biden was vice president, have known each other for decades. Their public rift over proposed judicial changes in Israel have prompted concerns over possible long-term damage. (Michel Euler/AP)
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JERUSALEM — A rift between President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu roiled Jerusalem and Washington on Wednesday after a rare public spat erupted between the leaders of the longtime allies, two men who have a long personal history of cooperation as well as disagreement.

The dispute escalated late Tuesday following comments by Biden that appeared to question Netanyahu’s ability or willingness to compromise on his contentious judicial-overhaul plan, which has sparked months of protests and instability in Israel. Under pressure, Netanyahu has agreed to postpone the overhaul but has shown no signs of dropping it.

Netanyahu’s defiant response to Biden overnight Wednesday shook Israel’s political and security establishment and exposed the prime minister to criticism for purportedly jeopardizing the country’s most vital diplomatic relationship. In the United States, the exchange reverberated across the political landscape, as Republicans accused Biden of undermining a key ally, and some Democratic activists called for him to take an even stronger stance in calling out Israel for potential antidemocratic moves.

Although tensions between the United States and Israel have been on the rise since Netanyahu’s new far-right government was sworn in in December, this was the first time they were on such vivid display. The back-and-forth reflects not only a highly unusual split between two longtime allies but also the latest chapter in a years-long relationship between two seasoned heads of state who are deeply familiar with each other’s country.

Despite strong international opposition, Israeli settlement construction has progressed in recent months, increasing violence in the already volatile West Bank. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

Netanyahu and Biden have publicly touted the durability of their friendship and their countries’ alliance, but the growing tensions carry implications for the domestic politics of both nations.

“This is clear and tangible damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship, a pillar of Israel’s national security,” former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas wrote in the Haaretz newspaper Wednesday. “As long as he is Israel’s prime minister, things are likely to deteriorate.”

Biden has signaled misgivings about Netanyahu’s path in recent weeks as the prime minister has pursued changes to the Israeli judicial system, saying the courts have grown too powerful. The president told reporters Tuesday that he remains “very concerned” about the proposal, which critics say would irreparably weaken Israel’s system of checks and balances.

“They cannot continue down this road,” Biden said Tuesday in North Carolina, just before boarding Air Force One en route to Washington.

The remarks were measured on their face but explosive by the standards of the carefully disciplined messaging that normally defines U.S.-Israeli interactions.

The president expanded on his comments after landing in Washington, saying of Netanyahu’s proposal, “I hope he walks away from it.”

Biden also dashed hopes in Jerusalem that Netanyahu, who has just started his sixth term in office, would make the traditional trip to the White House soon. Asked by reporters if such a visit was in the works, Biden responded tersely, “Not in the near term.”

Netanyahu responded to Biden’s comments in a 1 a.m. string of tweets, saying that “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.”

Hard-line members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition were even more defiant, accusing Biden of meddling in Israel’s domestic affairs. One minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party posted that Biden had been duped by “fake news,” before deleting the tweet.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right politician with roots in the radical settlers’ movement, complained that Israel is “not another star on the American flag. We are a democracy, and I expect the U.S. president to understand that.”

Netanyahu’s Israeli opponents, in contrast, welcomed Biden’s comments. Former army chief of staff and opposition leader Benny Gantz, who is rapidly rising in the polls, thanked Biden for delivering “an urgent wake-up call to the Israeli government.”

Netanyahu’s coalition, citing a mandate from its election victory in November, has proposed giving the ruling coalition more power to override Supreme Court decisions and to pick judges. The changes are needed, supporters say, because the courts have become too powerful at the expense of elected officials and are biased in favor of the country’s left wing. Opponents say the changes would put the country on a path to authoritarianism.

In a series of increasingly direct public comments, Biden and his aides have appeared to side with the opponents.

GOP leaders have responded by accusing the administration of anti-Israel sentiment. “Utterly disgraceful,” tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), referring to Biden’s suggestion that he has no immediate plans to meet with Netanyahu.

While some Democrats have directly accused Netanyahu of trying to gut Israel’s judicial branch, others have expressed discomfort with the idea of getting too involved in the country’s domestic issues. “Israeli politics is for Israelis,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “They don’t need me telling them how to do stuff.”

The overwhelming bipartisan support for Israel in Congress could make it difficult for Biden to continue publicly castigating Netanyahu, said Eric Alterman, a historian and author of “We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel.”

“It’s very costly for an American politician to take on the Israeli government,” Alterman said. “Jimmy Carter did it and was a one-term president. George H.W. Bush did and was a one-term president. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton tried to and then decided it wasn’t worth the effort. So there’s not a lot of upside, politically speaking, for getting in a fight with the Israelis.”

But Netanyahu faces his own political peril if the conflict continues. Historically, he has taken a far more partisan approach to dealing with the United States than his predecessors, leaning sharply toward Republicans in recent years.

In 2015, he worked with GOP leaders to arrange an address to Congress — without notifying then-President Barack Obama — in which he excoriated the proposed nuclear deal with Iran, a centerpiece of Obama’s foreign policy.

When Donald Trump took office, he and Netanyahu forged an overt political partnership, and Netanyahu’s campaign even erected a large billboard showing him alongside Trump under the slogan “Netanyahu — in another league.”

Brett Bruen, who served on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said the prime minister’s decision to push back against Biden’s comments Wednesday is “classic Netanyahu” — the mark of a savvy politician deeply familiar with American politics.

“What he’s trying to do — and it remains to be seen how successfully — is to aggressively push Biden back,” Bruen said. “Netanyahu continues to believe the he can outplay Biden on the home front because of the political support that he and Israel enjoy in the U.S.”

Netanyahu, as he often does, later sought to reassure Israelis that his decades-long relationship with “my friend Joe” was intact and the “unshakable” bilateral relationship was sound.

The White House also sought to downplay tensions Wednesday, with spokesman John Kirby highlighting the more conciliatory parts of Netanyahu’s statement.

Saying “there’s a lot to like” in the Israeli prime minister’s comments, Kirby said open disagreement between Biden and Netanyahu is not a sign of a deterioration in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“These two gentlemen have known each other for 40-some-odd years,” he said. “And the great thing about a deep friendship is you can be that candid with one another.”

Biden himself has repeatedly emphasized his decades-long support for Israel. In a 2014 speech to the Jewish Federations of North America, he told the audience about a photograph he had sent Netanyahu years earlier with a heartfelt inscription.

“Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you,” he said he wrote.

That sentiment was shaped in part by Israel’s early years, when Biden was a young senator and the Jewish state faced existential threats, said Natan Sachs, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. Given that long history, Biden’s open criticism of Netanyahu’s government is particularly noteworthy, Sachs said.

The turbulence threatened to overshadow Biden’s “Summit for Democracy,” a gathering of about 120 countries starting Wednesday. Some advocates bristled at the virtual speaking role granted to Netanyahu at the summit, arguing that he is attempting to roll back some of the same democratic principles the program was meant to highlight.

In his remarks to world leaders gathered Wednesday, Biden did not mention Israel, instead celebrating what he called recent advances in democracy around the world.

“We’re seeing real indications that we’re turning the tide here,” he said.

Olorunnipa and Kornfield reported from Washington.