The White House on Monday called it “unfortunate” that Israel’s parliament ratified part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s contested judicial overhaul, defying U.S. President Joe Biden, and again urged the prime minister to seek a broad political consensus.
Biden’s administration reiterated its long-standing concerns after Israel’s Knesset approved an initial bill aimed at curbing the Supreme Court’s powers, despite months of street protests and appeals from the U.S. and other countries to hold off and negotiate with the opposition.
The vote, driven by Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition, showed the limits of Biden’s ability to rein in the divisive judicial overhaul, even after bringing to bear pressure from Israel’s closest ally.
“As a lifelong friend of Israel, President Biden has publicly and privately expressed his views that major changes in a democracy to be enduring must have as broad a consensus as possible,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.
“It is unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority,” she added.
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Opposition members of parliament boycotted the vote backed by Netanyahu’s coalition, which is considered the most far-right in Israel’s history.
Hours after the vote, Netanyahu said in a televised address the courts will remain independent and he hopes to reach agreement with the opposition on judicial changes by the end of November.
Biden, who has had frosty relations with Netanyahu compared with former President Donald Trump, finally invited the prime minister last week for an official visit later this year. But U.S. officials have yet to set a date or concur with Israeli statements that they would meet at the White House in September.
Biden had delayed extending the invitation out of concern over Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan and Jewish settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. The two leaders have occasionally clashed in public and in private.
Biden, a Democrat, has said Netanyahu must maintain Israel’s independent judiciary as crucial to democracy, but some Republican lawmakers have accused him of meddling in Israeli domestic affairs.
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However, there have been no signs Biden’s criticism has hurt other key areas such as U.S.-Israel military and intelligence cooperation.
“We have a long-standing friendship with the government of Israel that really transcends any one issue,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters.
At a regular White House briefing, Jean-Pierre repeated Biden’s pledge that the U.S. commitment to Israel remains “iron-clad” and gave no indication Washington was prepared to use billions of dollars in military aid to Israel as leverage.
“The United States will continue to support the efforts of President (Isaac) Herzog and other Israeli leaders as they seek to build a broader consensus through political dialog,” she said.
(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Grant McCool)