The US confronts a tight but turbulent relationship with Israel

Long before he moved into the White House, President Biden compared the relationship between the United States and Israel to that of close friends. “We love each other,” he said, “and we drive each other crazy.”

The US and Israel are currently in one of the drive-each-other-crazy phases of their normally close but often turbulent 75-year partnership.

The upcoming vote on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to rein in the judiciary has become the latest point of contention, with Mr Biden warning against pursuing a plan that has deeply divided Israeli society while the prime minister essentially tells him to back off.

What makes this moment different is that the rift has nothing to do with the foreign policy and national security issues that typically provoke disagreement, such as arms sales, Iran’s nuclear program, territorial claims or the long-running push for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, it is a strictly domestic issue in Israel, namely the balance of power and the future of freedom in the one historical bastion of democracy in the Middle East.

The friction between friends has complicated cooperation in other areas where the two allies have common interests. For months, Mr. Biden to invite Mr. Netanyahu to Washington, preventing at least some meetings between lower-level officials. The president relented last week, agreeing to meet at an as-yet-unspecified time and place in the United States later this year, but then felt compelled to issue a public statement making clear that he had not changed his mind about Mr. Netanyahu’s drive to curb judicial independence.

Debate over the prime minister’s plan, which drew hundreds of thousands of protesters into Israel’s streets over the weekend in recent months of demonstrations, has also spilled over into the Jewish community in the United States, at a time when rising partisanship has threatened to undermine American support for Israel.

“People who are left of center are worried or more upset in general than people who are right of center,” said Nathan J. Diament, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, one of the largest Orthodox Jewish organizations in the country.

“There are many people in the American Orthodox community whose views on the drug are sympathetic or supportive of the reforms,” ​​he added, noting that his community leans more politically conservative, “but are nevertheless concerned about the division that the process has caused.”

Still, he and other longtime advocates and analysts said they remained confident the U.S.-Israel relationship would endure. After a liberal Democratic congresswoman called Israel a “racist state,” the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution declaring the opposite to be true. Only a handful of Democrats boycotted last week’s speech to a joint session of Congress by President Isaac Herzog, and most of the rest gave him a standing ovation.

Robert B. Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the battle over the legal plan was the “clash of the century” in Israel, but it did not really affect relations with the United States in a profound way. “It’s a bit of a controversy a bit,” he said. “In historical terms, this is not starting to be an American-Israeli crisis.” Instead, he said, “this is really a fight in the family.”

The United States and Israel have enjoyed one of the world’s most intimate partnerships since the Jewish state was founded in 1948 and recognized minutes later by President Harry S. Truman. But conflict has been in the couple’s DNA from the start. Every president — even the most outspoken supporters of Israel — has clashed with Israeli prime ministers at one point or another.

Despite recognizing Israel, Mr. Truman refused to sell the new state offensive weapons, as did his two successors. Dwight D. Eisenhower forced Israeli forces to withdraw from Egypt after the Suez Crisis in 1956. Ronald Reagan was outraged by Israeli lobbying against his high-tech aircraft sales to Saudi Arabia. George HW Bush was so opposed to Israeli settlement plans that he suspended $10 billion in mortgage guarantees.

Sir. Netanyahu has been at the center of many controversies over the past few decades. When he was deputy secretary of state, his public criticism of the United States in 1990 prompted an angry Secretary of State James A. Baker III to expel Mr. Netanyahu from the State Department. When Mr Netanyahu became prime minister, Bill Clinton was so turned off after their first meeting in 1996 that he asked aides afterwards: “Who is the superpower here?” use an explosive for emphasis.

Barack Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, never one to warm to, was further alienated when the Israeli leader addressed a joint session of Congress to lash out at US efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. Even Donald J. Trump, who bent over backwards to give Israel virtually everything on its geopolitical shopping list, finally broke with Mr. Netanyahu, first over a dispute over annexation and later over the Israeli’s congratulations to Mr. Biden for winning the 2020 election.

Sir. Biden’s relationship with Mr. Netanyahu has been scratching years back. Sir. Biden once said he had given a picture to Mr. Netanyahu with an inscription using his nickname: “Bibi, I don’t agree with anything you say, but I love you.” As vice president, Mr. Biden undercut during a visit to Israel by an announcement of settlement. But Mr Biden later insisted he and Mr Netanyahu were “still friends.”

In some ways, Mr. Biden’s approach to Israel has been different from that of his modern predecessors. While he has reaffirmed US support for a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, Mr Biden is the first president in decades not to pursue peace talks, an acknowledgment that there is no near-term prospect of success.

That in itself should have been a relief to Mr Netanyahu, who has long resented US pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians. But Mr. Netanyahu has been outspoken in his criticism of Mr. Biden’s efforts to negotiate a new nuclear deal with Iran, while Mr. Biden has called Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet “one of the most extreme” he had ever seen.

The legal changes have been the latest sore point. When Vice President Kamala Harris addressed a celebration of Israel’s 75th anniversary at the country’s embassy in Washington last month, just two words in her speech describing shared values ​​— “independent judiciary” — prompted Secretary of State Eli Cohen to snap that she hadn’t even read the plan. Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, recently lamented that because of Mr. Netanyahu “is no longer our closest ally.”

Despite all this, Mr Satloff said he did not believe Mr Biden was “looking for a fight” with the Israeli leader – which led to last week’s invitation. “My sense is that the administration came to the conclusion that this tactic of withholding a presidential meeting had run its course,” he said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Biden does not think much of the judicial restructuring package, going so far as to summon Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist, to the Oval Office last week to convey the message. Sir. Biden urged Mr. Netanyahu to “not rush” his changes and “to seek the broadest possible consensus here.”

Aides insist that Mr. Biden does not try to construct a specific result in an allied internal policy. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said the president was simply offering “common sense but straightforward” advice.

“It’s not about us dictating or lecturing,” said Mr. Sullivan in a brief interview after an appearance last week at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “It’s about the fact that we deeply believe that the basis of our relationship is our shared democratic values.”

Other Democrats also said it was appropriate to weigh in with a friend. The huge street protests “should be a note of warning to elected leaders in Israel, and I hope will give them pause,” said Sen. Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and a close Biden ally.

But some Republicans accused Mr. Biden for intervening in a domestic issue. “Maybe he knows more about the legal system and he feels comfortable telling the Israeli people what to do,” said Sen. James E. Risch of Idaho, the senior Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee. “I don’t think it’s appropriate any more than they should be telling us how to vote on the Supreme Court here.”

In the American Jewish community, the issue has not generated the same passion seen on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

“The people who were very involved in the Jewish organizational world were certainly activated by the proposed judicial reform, but I don’t think this caught on broadly in the American Jewish community,” said Diana Fersko, senior rabbi at Village Temple, a Reform synagogue in Manhattan.

Rabbi Fersko, the author of a book on anti-Semitism due out this summer, said the issue is complicated and noted deep differences between Israeli and American societies. “I don’t think the Jewish American community needs to be overly involved in this,” she said. “But I think we have to have a deep faith that the state of Israel will find a way forward.”

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