Biden’s Confrontation With Netanyahu Had Been Brewing for Years

WASHINGTON — When President Biden bluntly warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he “cannot continue down this path” of reforming his country’s judiciary, he provoked the kind of response often voiced by America’s adversaries rather than its allies. .

“Israel is a sovereign country that makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressure from outside, even from best friends,” Netanyahu said Wednesday, accusing the US president of meddling in another country’s politics. which is exactly what Mr. Biden intended to do.

It was a remarkably public outburst of the kind of disagreement that usually takes place in private. But there were other factors at play that had been brewing for many years.

There is no love lost between the two leaders, despite their polite facade when it comes to their decades-long relationship and their common commitment to defending Israel. Mr. Netanyahu made no particular effort to hide his endorsement of President Donald J. Trump in the 2020 election, making clear his preference for an incumbent who gave him everything he asked for, including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and paying little attention to the Palestinians while siding with Israel in its claims to Palestinian territory in the West Bank.

In Biden’s eyes, Netanyahu himself engaged in what was perhaps the most audacious interference in the US legislative process in modern history, when he arrived in Washington in 2015 and addressed Congress, denouncing a pending nuclear deal with Iran as a “nightmare” that “will practically guarantee that Iran will get those nuclear weapons, a lot of them.”

At the time, Netanyahu denied that he was interfering in US politics; instead, he insisted, he was arguing against a deal that he believed would weaken Israel’s own security.

Still, former officials who helped shape US and Israeli policy in previous administrations have called the current crisis extraordinary.

“This is unlike any other crisis in the relationship between the United States and Israel,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department peace negotiator for the Middle East. “I have never seen any administration react to a new move by Israel with such intensity, frequency, and at such a high level, as this.”

Miller and others said the past few weeks had dramatically changed US perceptions of Netanyahu, leaving Biden administration officials with far less confidence that disputes with the Israeli leader and his right-wing government could be contained.

“What surprises me is that the Biden administration is dealing with a Bibi that is very different from anything anyone has ever dealt with before,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who served as the US ambassador to Israel during the George W administration. Bush, using a nickname. for the prime minister.

The conflict escalated after the US ambassador to Israel suggested on Tuesday that Netanyahu would be welcome in Washington soon.

But Mr. Biden made it clear that such an invitation was not in the cards. Asked if Mr. Netanyahu would be invited to the White House, the president replied: “No. Not anytime soon.”

Netanyahu recently faced a corruption trial and was ousted in 2021 only to be reelected as prime minister the next year. Since then, he has joined ultra-conservative political forces, assembling a far-right coalition that has privately caused Biden administration officials to question how much control Netanyahu has over the factions that have made him powerful.

The tug-of-war with Netanyahu put Biden in an awkward position this week when his White House hosted a summit dedicated to promoting democratic ideals, even as allied governments continued to test them.

Netanyahu’s critics say his plan to change the composition of Israel’s judiciary is an existential threat to the country’s 75-year democratic tradition. Netanyahu’s announcement that he would halt the plan to give the government greater control over the Supreme Court, which could allow his administration to end the corruption trial against him, has left Biden administration officials with the hope that he will seek a permanent commitment.

So as the tension escalated, both Mr. Netanyahu and the Biden administration sought to smooth over any cracks, with John Kirby, a White House spokesman, telling reporters that there was “a lot to like” about the statement by Mr. Netanyahu.

“He talked about looking for a compromise,” Kirby said. “He talked about working to build a consensus here regarding these possible judicial reforms. He talked about how unbreakable he knows the relationship between the United States and Israel is.”

He added: “And the best of friends, and I’m sure all of you have friends, don’t always agree with everything your friend does or says. And the best thing about a deep friendship is that you can be so honest with each other.”

Speaking virtually at the White House democracy summit on Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu saying that “Israel and the United States have had their occasional differences, but I want to assure you that the alliance between the world’s greatest democracy and the strong, proud and independent democracy—Israel—in the heart of the Middle East, is unbreakable. Nothing can change that.”

He added that his country “will always remain a proud, strong and vibrant democracy as a beacon of freedom and shared prosperity in the heart of the Middle East.”

Mr. Biden also faces growing domestic concern over the settlements. On March 9, 92 Democratic members of the House sent a letter urging Mr. Biden to “use all available diplomatic tools to prevent the government of Israel from further damaging the nation’s democratic institutions” and undermining a potential two-state solution for the Palestinians.

The settlement issue, though largely overshadowed by judicial reform, has the potential to further shake relations between the two countries. The Biden administration has been pressing Netanyahu’s coalition for months to rein in settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, with little success.

Just last week, the State Department pointedly rebuked the Netanyahu government for approving a measure that would allow settlers to return to areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that were evacuated in 2005, which, if acted upon, would it would be a potentially explosive provocation. to the Palestinians.

The United States was “extremely concerned” by the new law, Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman, said, calling it “particularly provocative and counterproductive” amid a spate of Israeli-Palestinian violence that many experts warn could erupt in another. massive palestinian uprising. or Intifada.

Kurtzer warned that even if Netanyahu backtracked on the judicial reform plan, in part to placate Biden, he could feel the resulting pressure to take more aggressive action on settlements and other policies to appease his fragile right-wing coalition.

“The reality is that part of the payoff to your coalition can be a big boost to settlements,” he said.

What comes next for Biden largely depends on how events unfold inside Israel, analysts said. Mr. Netanyahu could still agree to some compromise approach to the proposed judicial measures, as recommended by Mr. Biden, and put down the mass demonstrations inside his own country. That would take the issue out of the political spotlight and allow Biden to return to more private ways of cajoling.

If Netanyahu goes ahead and the demonstrations continue, Biden may be forced to take an even tougher stance, especially if unease grows among Democrats in Congress, who are increasingly vocal in their concerns. Meanwhile, the president has come under fire from Republicans who say he has been unnecessarily harsh on Netanyahu compared to other leaders he has invited to the White House.

“Absolutely embarrassing,” Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, wrote on Twitter about rejecting Biden’s invitation. “Biden happily welcomes anti-American radicals like Lula, while he avoids close American allies like Netanyahu,” Cruz said, referring to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president. who has long accused the Americans officials from trying to undermine him politically. And Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, announced plans to visit Israel in late April.

On Wednesday, a White House spokeswoman stressed that administration and Israeli government officials were in regular contact despite the overlap. The official then reiterated Mr. Biden’s hope that the Israelis would compromise on judicial reform, while adding that the United States would not interfere in Israel’s domestic politics.

david e sanger contributed reporting.