Despite tensions between them, President Joe Biden has so far avoided a nasty public confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, trying to make clear his opposition to judicial overhaul which shook the close US alliance, Reuters reports.
Over the past three months, Biden and senior members of his staff have expressed concern about Israel’s plans to expand settlements in the West Bank and the violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
What most worried the White House, however, was Netanyahu’s plan to reshape Israel’s judicial system to give the government greater control over appointments to the Supreme Court. The decision plunged Israel into a national crisis with massive protests forcing Netanyahu to delay the move on Monday.
Biden, who has known Netanyahu for about 40 years, has been working directly with him in private phone calls, aides say, while publicly showing support for Israel, the strongest US ally in the Middle East.
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“The main operating policy toward this Israeli government is to avoid any ongoing public confrontation with Netanyahu, whenever and wherever they can,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.
“They don’t want to fight. It’s bad politics and bad policy. It’s messy and awkward,” he said.
The US administration has long criticized Israel, in part because of the power of pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington, its role as a close friend and the support the country enjoys among ordinary Americans.
The US population has largely favorable views of Israel, home to major religious sites for Christians, Jews and Muslims.
A Gallup poll earlier this month showed that Americans have a much more favorable view of Israel, consistent with previous years, than they do of the Palestinian Authority, 68 percent compared to 26 percent.
A sign of Biden’s approach was a statement from the White House issued on Sunday night in which he urged “Israeli leaders to reach a compromise as soon as possible” as the protests there grew.
“We did not take an independent approach,” said a senior administration official. “We understand that there is a domestic political process that is playing out. Therefore, we have been very clear that we are concerned about this reform legislation and we have also made it clear that we want a compromise to be found. So we are watch this closely.”
Dennis Ross, a veteran US peace negotiator between Israel and the Arabs, said the Biden administration had expressed its concerns about Israel’s judicial proposals but had done so privately, whenever possible.
Ross, who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, said he thought the approach of making the case largely private was the right one.
Halie Soifer, Executive Director of the Democratic Council of American Jews, said that the way the Biden administration has handled this crisis, so far, is consistent with Biden’s commitment to the US-Israel partnership.
“And sometimes friends are very honest with each other behind closed doors, and that seems to be what’s happening here,” she said.
But, keeping a distance from Netanyahu, Biden has not invited him to visit the White House since the Israeli began his sixth term as Prime Minister in December.
A senior administration official said Tuesday that there are no plans yet for Netanyahu to visit but “There is a long tradition of Israeli leaders visiting Washington, and Prime Minister Netanyahu will probably visit at some point.”
On the other hand, there have been no administration threats to limit US funding to Israel which is the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign aid since World War II, according to a March 1 report by the Congressional Research Service.
The US Congress has historically been reluctant to take such a step and the US is dependent on Israel in a region where Western concerns about Iran are growing.
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