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There are signs of escalating tension between Tel Aviv and Washington

March 13, 2023 at 1:00 pm

US President Joe Biden (R) met with former Israeli Prime Minister [netanyahu/Twitter]

The US has announced that it will not participate in a conference in Washington DC for senior economists because Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionist Party, will be there. Even though he has been granted a diplomatic visa by the US, this is a clear message that he is being boycotted due to his recent racist statements about the Palestinians and the village of Huwara.

At the same time, former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg has attacked the legal changes proposed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, likening them to the actions of disgraced US President Richard Nixon and describing them as a disaster for Israel. Netanyahu’s attempt to protect himself through the legal “reforms” has tens of thousands of Israeli citizens believing that they will be exposed to persecution and discrimination based on their attitudes and preferences. Moreover, the strategic alliance between Israel and the US is based on a shared commitment to the rule of law; the proposed judicial overhaul will weaken Israel’s relationship with the Western world.

As a result, prominent Democrat members of the US Congress have sent a letter to President Joe Biden demanding that he does everything possible to prevent the Israeli judicial system being damaged. They also want him to use all available diplomatic means to prevent the far-right government in Israel from continuing to harm political institutions and undermine the possibility of a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

This confirms beyond any doubt that Netanyahu is leading Israel toward a rift with the US, not just within Israeli society. He is, along with some of his ministers, unpopular in Washington. A dispute with the US will have dire consequences for Israel’s security and economy.

Diplomatic warnings from Washington to Netanyahu regarding his judicial overhaul and relations with the Palestinians have been ignored. As a result, Smotrich’s visit to the US for the conference will not include meetings with senior government officials.

Poll: Massive support for reservists opposing Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul

When a US administration boycotts the Israeli finance minister, it is serious. It sends a negative message to investors, bankers and businessmen who are concerned about the consequences of Netanyahu’s changes to the judiciary on the Israeli economy. What’s more, it is customary for every Israeli prime minister to arrive in Washington shortly after forming his government; such visits have a symbolic importance, and illustrate the special relationship between the two countries, but Netanyahu has not received an invitation to visit the US on his re-election, and it is not clear whether or when he will get one. Obviously, by ignoring the US administration’s messages he is being critical of the Biden White House.

Tel Aviv, therefore, may be losing its privileged position in Washington. Smotrich’s racist statement about Huwara had the effect of a cluster bomb on US-Israel relations. So far, it is not clear how this will affect them.

Netanyahu and his judicial reform plans – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Aggravating the Israeli crisis with the US may affect strategic cooperation, especially on the Iranian nuclear programme. It is hard to believe that Netanyahu does not see this, and does not understand the potentially dire consequences for Israel. As far as Washington is concerned, he has to control the extremists in his government. Furthermore, US Ambassador to Tel Aviv Thomas Nides has confirmed that he advised Netanyahu to hit the brakes on the legal changes. On top of that, the US State Department’s summary of 2021 included, for the first-time, data about the violence of the Israeli occupation army, police and settlers against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

The State Department called on the Israeli government to act decisively to prevent violence against the Palestinians, and to prosecute those responsible for the attacks, especially in Huwara. Such violence is unacceptable, and Israel must act equally in all cases and invest the same resources to prevent such attacks and prosecute those responsible.

In the American media, the attack on the current right-wing government in Israel has continued. Commentators tend to agree that Netanyahu is destroying Israeli society and risking the future of political and judicial institutions in Israel for the sake of blocking the indictments he faces. The issue is not only very important, but also very personal. Netanyahu is hoping that the legal changes will lead to the end of his trial on charges of breach of trust, bribery and fraud for which he could be imprisoned.

Tel Aviv has recently hosted some high-level US visitors in Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and CIA Chief William Burns. All exposed unusual differences between the hosts and their guests regarding Israel’s domestic affairs. The Americans spoke of a storm surrounding Netanyahu’s plan to change the judicial system, and revealed US concerns about the controversial proposals. US officials have done the same with their Israeli counterparts.

It is clear, therefore, that the US is telling Israel that the changes are unacceptable to the White House, and that the Biden administration is backed in this by the Senate and House of Representatives, the Supreme Court and the US Constitution.

READ: Ex-Israel PM Barak calls for civil disobedience to stop judicial reforms

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.