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Biden calls Israel’s Netanyahu with judicial plan ‘concern’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-Vice President Joe Biden talk in 2016.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-Vice President Joe Biden talk prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2016.
(Michel Euler / Associated Press)
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President Biden spoke Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express “concern” over his government’s planned overhaul of the country’s judicial system that has sparked widespread protests across Israel and to encourage compromise.

The White House said Biden reiterated U.S. concerns about the measure to roll back the judiciary’s insulation from the country’s political system, in a call a senior administration official described as “candid and constructive.” There was no immediate indication that Netanyahu was shying away from the action, after rejecting a compromise last week offered by the country’s figurehead president.

The official, who requested anonymity to discuss the leaders’ private call, said that Biden spoke to Netanyahu “as a friend of Israel in the hopes that there can be a compromise formula found.”

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The White House in a statement added that Biden “underscored his belief that democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship, that democratic societies are strengthened by genuine checks and balances, and that fundamental changes should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support.”

“The President offered support for efforts underway to forge a compromise on proposed judicial reforms consistent with those core principles,” the statement said.

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March 19, 2023

Netanyahu told Biden that Israel will “remain a strong and vibrant democracy,” according to the prime minister’s office.

Netanyahu said Sunday the legal changes would be carried out responsibly while protecting the basic rights of all Israelis. His government — the country’s most right-wing ever — says the overhaul is meant to correct an imbalance that has given the courts too much power and prevented lawmakers from carrying out the voting public’s will.

Critics say it will upend Israel’s delicate system of checks and balances and slide the country toward authoritarianism. Opponents of the measure have carried out disruptive protests, and it has even embroiled the country’s military, after more than 700 elite officers from the air force, special forces and Mossad said they would stop volunteering for duty.

The conversation followed a Sunday meeting in Egypt between Israeli and Palestinian officials in which they pledged to take steps to lower tensions ahead of a sensitive holiday season. Administration officials praised the outcome of the summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. A joint communique said the sides had reaffirmed a commitment to de-escalate and prevent further violence.

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Biden in the call “reinforced the need for all sides to take urgent, collaborative steps to enhance security coordination, condemn all acts of terrorism, and maintain the viability of a two-state solution,” according to the White House.

The Israeli and Palestinian delegations met for the second time in less than a month, shepherded by regional allies Egypt and Jordan, as well as the United States, to end a yearlong spasm of violence.

More than 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and more than 40 Israelis or foreigners have been killed in Palestinian attacks during that time. Israel pledged to stop discussion of new settlement construction for four months, and to stop plans to legalize unauthorized settlement outposts for six months.

“The two sides agreed to establish a mechanism to curb and counter violence, incitement and inflammatory states and actions,” the communique said. The sides would report on progress at a follow-up meeting in Egypt next month, it added.

The Biden administration remains concerned about a repeat of the nightly clashes and other violent incidents between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem during Ramadan two years ago. Clashes at the Temple Mount in 2021 helped trigger an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

Under long-standing arrangements, Jews are allowed to visit the site but not pray there. But in recent years, the number of visitors has grown, with some quietly praying. Such scenes have raised fears among Palestinians that Israel is trying to alter the status quo.

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