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Will Netanyahu’ s judicial grab hurt relations with Joe Biden?

The Israeli government’s attempt to clip the powers of Supreme Court has heightened tensions with its most important ally — the United States.

The diplomatic rift widened in the past week after US President Joe Biden publically criticised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the proposed legislative changes, which critics say will limit top court’s ability to hold Israeli government accountable for corruption and other transgressions. 

“[Israel’s coalition government] cannot continue down this road. I’ve sort of made that clear,” Biden said, noting that Netanyahu will not be invited to the White House “in the near term.”

Feeling the heat from domestic street protests and under pressure from foreign allies, Netanyahu on March 27 postponed the overhaul but didn’t explicitly say anything about abandoning his plan.

Netanyahu indirectly accused Biden of interfering in Israel’s internal affairs and said his coalition government, which is made up of far-right lawmakers, will not take decisions “based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”

Critics say the judicial change will make it difficult for Israeli politicians to be tried on charges of corruption, bribery and breach of trust. 

Recently, Israel’s attorney general wrote a letter, saying Netanyahu is violating the law on conflict of interest because he himself is on trial on charges of corruption. 

The issue has created a kind of diplomatic mess between the US and Israel that the two allies haven’t seen in decades.

Damaging relations

The powerful US-based Jewish lobby groups such as the AIPAC, which helps Tel Aviv fend off criticism over its mistreatment of Palestinians, have been critical of Netanyahu’s alliance with far-right politicians linked to the late Jewish extremist Meir Kahane. 

It has also put Netanyahu on a collision course with the US Democrats. 

Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former US State Department Middle East peace negotiator said the US-Israel tensions are unprecedented. 

“I’ve never seen any administration react to a new Israel movement with the intensity, frequency — and at as senior a level — as this one,” he said, according to The New York Times.

Israel’s former prime minister and opposition leader Yair Lapid blamed Netanyahu for “ruining” the deep ties between Tel Aviv and Washington. 

“For decades Israel was the USA’s closest ally. The most extreme government in the country’s history ruined that in three months,” Lapid tweeted in Hebrew.

This week the Israeli leader had an opportunity to ease the tensions when he gave a virtual speech at the White House-hosted Summit for Democracy.

“You know, 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 a strong, proud and independent democracy – Israel – in the heart of the Middle East is unshakable. Nothing can change that,” Netanyahu said.

An uneasy friendship

Over the years, the US has backed Israel even during the latter’s most aggressive and indiscriminate actions against Palestinians. Washington has vetoed almost all of the UN motions, which seek to condemn Israel’s actions. 

But it’s during Democratic administrations that the Israeli leader really feels the heat. And he hasn’t really tried to hide his dislike of the Democrats. 

The Iran nuclear deal, which was signed when former US president Barack Obama was in office was sharply criticised by Netanyahu.

Even before Obama’s tenure had ended, Netanyahu gave his support to the then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. 

Trump conducted a major shift in US policy towards the Israel-Palestine conflict recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, in a move that was widely condemned. Trump later acknowledged that Netanyahu never “ever wanted to make peace” with Palestinians. 

When Trump walked back on the Iran nuclear deal and imposed heavy sanctions on Tehran, Netanyahu was over the moon. 

It was also during the Trump tenure when Iran’s top general of IRGC, Qasem Soleimani, was killed in a joint operation by Israel and the US. 

Israel’s defence comes first

Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for over four decades and have often disagreed. But when it comes to the US backing for Israel’s security, there’s hardly any disagreement. 

Successive US administrations have armed Israel to give it a military edge over its Arab neighbours. 

Iran — Israel’s arch-rival in the Middle East — has been at the center of Washington-Tel Aviv military ties. 

Both allies view Tehran’s nuclear programme as a threat to Tel Aviv and they have conducted joint military operations and drills.

According to the White House, Israeli and American officials remain in regular contact despite the recent diplomatic tensions.

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