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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, reaffirming the strength of bilateral ties.

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

Cohen said that he and Blinken spoke about expanding the Abraham Accords as well.

The Israeli readout said the conversation also turned to the government’s effort to overhaul the judiciary — a source of significant disagreement between Jerusalem and Washington.

The two spoke about fledgling talks led by President Isaac Herzog aimed at passing proposals that will enjoy broad consensus support

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

Prime Minister Benjamín Netanyahu speaks to the US democracy summit on March 29, 2023 (Screen capture)

A readout from the State Department was not immediately made available.

The conversation came two days after US President Joe Biden was asked about the state of Israeli democracy and Netanyahu’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 talks with reporters be he boards Air Force One at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, Tuesday, March 28, 2023, en route to Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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.”

“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 Wednesday in an apparent attempt by the Biden administration to lower the temperature.

I have known President Biden for over 40 years, and I appreciate his longstanding commitment to Israel.  The alliance between Israel and the United States is unbreakable and always overcomes the occasional disagreements between us

— Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) March 28, 2023

While Kirby only highlighted the parts of the statement the US appreciated, a US official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that Netanyahu’s response had infuriated some Biden officials, including those who were caught off guard by the president’s original candid 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 a furious rebuke from Israeli lawmakers allied with Netanyahu, with one Likud MK even suggesting Israel reject the $3.8 billion in annual security assistance that it receives from the US and fend for itself.

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

Earlier 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.

Biden: "Like many strong supporters of Israel I'm very concerned. I'm concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road. Netanyahu won't be invited to the White House in the near term"

— Yosef Yisrael (@yosefyisrael25) March 28, 2023

“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 via satellite, prefacing his address by thanking Biden, his “friend of 40 years.”

The judicial overhaul has further strained a bilateral relationship that is already tested due to Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

Last week, Washington summoned Israel’s Ambassador to the US Mike Herzog to the State Department for a private dressing-down over the Knesset’s passing of a law allowing the resettlement of northern West Bank areas evacuated by Israel in 2005. That came after over two months of escalated rhetoric regarding the overhaul, Israel’s advancement of over 10,000 settlement homes in the West Bank and incendiary remarks and actions by its far-right ministers.

Israel’s attorney general has warned that the package of legislation — which would give the coalition almost complete control over all judicial appointments, and constrain the High Court — would hand the government virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights or for Israel’s democratic character.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.