Top diplomats Cohen, Blinken talk judicial reform as US-Israel tensions ease

In the latest effort to move beyond a rhetorical flare-up between the US and Israel this week, the two countries’ top diplomats spoke by phone late Thursday night, reiterating the strength of bilateral ties.

“Ties with the US are a pillar of Israel’s foreign relations,” Cohen said after the call. “We will do everything we can to strengthen the conversation with our best friend, and I am happy to keep an open channel between myself and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.”

Cohen said he and Blinken also talked about expanding the Abraham Accords.

The Israeli reading said the conversation also touched on the government’s attempt to reform the judiciary – a significant source of disagreement between Jerusalem and Washington.

The two spoke about new talks led by President Isaac Herzog aimed at passing proposals that will receive broad consensus support.

“Foreign Minister Cohen told Secretary Blinken that he is proud to be an Israeli citizen, and a minister in a country like Israel that allows freedom to be expressed,” according to an Israel readout.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the US democracy summit on March 29, 2023 (Screenshot)

A statement from the State Department was not immediately available.

The conversation came two days after US President Joe Biden was asked about the state of Israeli democracy and Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reform before he boarded Air Force One.

The president responded that he expected Netanyahu to “walk away” from his current judicial reform legislation and that he was “very concerned” about the health of Israeli democracy. “They cannot continue down this road. And that’s clear to me,” Biden said. “I hope the prime minister will act… to work out a real compromise, but that remains to be seen.”

Biden also gave an emphatic “no” when asked if he would be inviting Netanyahu to the White House, adding: “Not soon.”

U.S. President Joe Biden talks to reporters aboard Air Force One at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, Tuesday, March 28, 2023, en route to Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

But on Wednesday, the White House praised Netanyahu’s comments in response to Biden’s concerns.

Netanyahu responded shortly after saying that he respects Biden’s friendship and long-term commitment to Israel and emphasized that the US-Israel alliance is “unbreakable” and can overcome differences. The chief executive also said that his government is committed to correcting what he claims is an imbalance of power between Israel’s three branches of government but that he wants to do so with as broad a consensus as possible.

However, Netanyahu closed by dissing Biden, saying that “Israel is a sovereign country that makes its decisions according to the will of its people and not based on pressure from abroad, including the best of friends.”

“It’s pretty good about it. He talked about looking for compromise. He talked about working towards developing a consensus regarding these potential judicial reforms. He talked about how untenable he knows the relationship between the United States and Israel. And he talked about his great respect for President Biden — a respect that President Biden also shares,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday in an apparent effort by the Biden administration to cool the temperature.

Although Kirby only showed the parts of the statement that were appreciated by the US, a US official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that Netanyahu’s response angered some Biden officials, including those who had been arrested since the President’s original statements to the press.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Wednesday, March 29, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Biden’s remarks drew furious rebuke from Netanyahu-aligned Israeli lawmakers, with one Likud MK suggesting Israel even reject the $3.8 billion in annual security aid it receives from the US and pays for itself.

Netanyahu reportedly ordered lawmakers from his party to stop publicly attacking the Biden administration on Wednesday but at least one MK continued to do so.

Earlier in the day, the prime minister did some damage of his own, telling the State Department’s Democracy Summit that Israel’s “alliance with the United States is “unbelievable” and saying he wanted to “build a broad national consensus ” regarding judicial reform.

“Israel and the United States have had their differences from time to time, but I want to assure you that the alliance between the largest democracy in the world and the strong, proud and independent democracy, Israel, in the heart of the Middle -Eastern, to imagine. Nothing can change that,” Netanyahu said via satellite, prefacing his address by thanking Biden, his “friend of 40 years.”

The judicial reform has put further strain on bilateral relations that are already being tested by Israel’s policies towards Palestine.

Last week, Washington summoned Israel’s Ambassador to the US Mike Herzog to the State Department for a private hearing on the Knesset’s passage of the law allowing the resettlement of the Northwest Bank areas evacuated by Israel in 2005. That happened after more and two months of it. increased rhetoric regarding the overhaul, Israel’s progress on more than 10,000 settlement houses in the West Bank and the incidental statements and actions of its right-wing ministers.

Israel’s attorney general has warned that the legislative package — which would give the coalition almost total control over all judicial appointments, and restrict the High Court — would give the government almost unlimited power, without providing any institutional safeguards for individual rights or the democratic rights of Israel. character.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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