U.S.-Israel Tensions Over Judicial Overhaul Burst Into Open

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel responded defiantly on Wednesday to sharp criticism from President Biden over his government’s contentious judicial overhaul plan, declaring that Israel was “a sovereign country” that would make its own decisions.

As weeks of quiet diplomatic pressure burst into an open dispute between the allies, Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents in Israel accused him of endangering the longstanding and critical relationship with the United States that could harm the country’s ability to face daunting security challenges, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“I have known President Biden for over 40 years, and I appreciate his longstanding commitment to Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement posted in English on Twitter. But, he added, “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.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks, first issued by his office at the unusual time of about 1 a.m. in Israel, came after Mr. Biden told reporters that he was “very concerned” about the events in Israel. The president’s comments came after suggestions on Tuesday by the U.S. ambassador in Israel that Mr. Netanyahu would be welcome in Washington sometime soon.

But Mr. Biden made it clear that a much coveted invitation was not about to be issued.

When asked whether Mr. Netanyahu would be invited to the White House, the president replied bluntly: “No. Not in the near term.”

The hard-right coalition led by Mr. Netanyahu has sought to exert more political control over Israel’s Supreme Court, setting off the worst domestic crisis in decades.

“They cannot continue down this road, I’ve sort of made that clear,” Mr. Biden said. “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.”

The extraordinary exchange came after Mr. Netanyahu on Monday delayed his effort to push the judicial plan through Parliament to allow for dialogue, and hours after negotiating teams for the government coalition and the opposition held a preliminary meeting hosted by Israel’s mostly ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog.

The judicial overhaul has divided the country between those who see it as a power grab by the ruling majority that will destroy Israeli democracy and those who have long viewed the Supreme Court as overactive and want to give more power to the elected legislature.

The plan set off weeks of mass protests and turmoil, culminating in a nationwide work stoppage that brought the country, and its airports, to a halt on Monday after Mr. Netanyahu summarily dismissed his defense minister, who had called for a pause in the legislation to allow for talks and compromise.

Mr. Netanyahu’s announcement of a delay in the legislation largely calmed the stormy atmosphere in Israel and had also been expected to ease tensions with Washington. But Mr. Biden’s blunt remarks indicated that the United States remained guarded about Mr. Netanyahu’s plans and would wait to see the outcome of the negotiations in Israel in the coming weeks.

Mr. Biden’s criticism and Mr. Netanyahu’s response set off a political uproar in Israel, even as Mr. Herzog, the president, continued meetings on Wednesday morning with representatives of some of the smaller opposition parties.

Benny Gantz, the centrist leader of the opposition National Unity party and a former minister of defense and military chief, excoriated Mr. Netanyahu for mishandling Israel’s relationship with the United States.

“President Biden sent an urgent wake-up call to the Israeli government tonight,” Mr. Gantz wrote on Twitter. “Damaging relations with the United States, our best friend and our most important ally, is a strategic attack. The prime minister must guide his negotiating teams regarding the judicial legislation, act quickly to repair the situation and preserve the Israeli democracy that is at the basis of these values.”

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel.

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