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After row with White House, Blinken calls Israeli FM, affirms friendly ties

WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday pledged enduring ties with Israel but warned against inflaming tensions with the Palestinians, following a rare public row between the allies.

President Joe Biden, speaking to reporters Tuesday, called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step back from a bid to weaken the judiciary that has set off massive protests.

Netanyahu, who temporarily froze the push, faced with a general strike and mass protests, responded that he would not bow to foreign pressure but took a more conciliatory tone when he participated in a democracy summit called by Biden.

In the highest level contact since the exchange, Blinken called Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and “reaffirmed the importance of the enduring US– Israel bilateral relationship,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said.

Blinken also discussed Iran, seen by Netanyahu as a paramount threat, and renewed US support for a Palestinian state — an idea rejected by much of Netanyahu’s hard-right government.

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The top US diplomat “emphasized the importance of refraining from unilateral actions that exacerbate tensions” with the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors, Patel said in a statement.

US President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, March 28, 2023, en route to Washington. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

In his statement, Cohen said the two discussed expanding relations with Arab states as part of the Abraham Accords, Israel’s efforts to qualify for the US visa waiver program, and the judicial overhaul legislation.

“Relations with the US is one of the pillars of our foreign policy. We will work in every way to strengthen the dialogue with our great friend, and I am happy that there is an open channel for conversation between me and the secretary of state,” Cohen tweeted.

Biden, who has known Netanyahu for decades, took office hoping to avoid a replay of the public feuding with the Israeli leader seen when he was Barack Obama’s vice president.

The latest and most severe blip in the bilateral relationship — which has slowly deteriorated since Netanyahu returned to office three months ago at the head of the most right-wing government in Israeli history — unfolded on Tuesday when Biden was asked about the state of Israeli democracy and the prime minister’s planned judicial overhaul before boarding Air Force One.

The president responded that he hoped Netanyahu would “walk away” from his current judicial overhaul legislation, and that he was “very concerned” about the health of Israeli democracy. “They cannot continue down this road. And I’ve sort of made that clear,” Biden said. “Hopefully the prime minister will act… to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen.”

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

US President Joe Biden meets then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (right) at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. At left is Secretary of State Antony Blinken; 2nd left is US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. (GPO)

Netanyahu responded shortly thereafter by saying he appreciates Biden’s friendship and longstanding commitment to Israel and stressed that the US-Israel alliance is “unbreakable” and can overcome disagreements. The premier also said his government is committed to correcting what he claims is a power imbalance between Israel’s three branches of government but is trying to do so with as broad a consensus as possible.

However, Netanyahu closed by rebuffing Biden, saying that “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.”

Later in the day, the premier did some damage control of his own, telling the State Department’s Democracy Summit that “Israel’s alliance with the United States is “unshakable” and saying he was trying “to achieve a broad national consensus” on judicial reform.

The White House welcomed these statements.

“There’s a lot to like about it. He talked about searching for compromise. He talked about working toward building consensus with respect to these potential judicial reforms. He talked about how unshakable he knows the relationship is between the United States and Israel. And he talked about his great respect for President Biden — that’s a respect that president Biden shares as well,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said upon being primed at a press briefing.