President Biden on Tuesday said he hopes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “walks away from” plans to pursue reforms to the country’s judiciary, which has drawn criticism from U.S. officials and sparked protests and work stoppages in Israel.
“Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned, and I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road,” Biden told reporters after a speech in North Carolina on the economy.
“Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can try to work out some genuine compromise. But that remains to be seen,” Biden added.
Biden said Netanyahu won’t be invited to visit the White House “in the near term.”
Upon arriving back at the White House on Tuesday evening, Biden said Israel was in a difficult spot, and he hoped Netanyahu would abandon his pursuit of the judicial reform legislation.
The comments were Biden’s most critical to date as Netanyahu’s conservative government has in recent weeks attempted to push through reforms to Israel’s judiciary that would effectively allow the government to choose judges on the country’s top court.
Critics of the law say it would erase checks and balances that are central to democratic governance — and in particular, that it would protect Netanyahu from court cases in which he faces charges of bribery and corruption, erase key protections for minority groups in the country and threaten efforts to preserve a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu on Monday announced his government would delay pursuing the reforms for at least a month, until the next parliamentary session. That announcement came one day after massive protests.
The Biden administration had for weeks expressed its concerns about Israel’s plans, with the president raising his worries in a call with Netanyahu earlier this month and a National Security Council spokesperson on Sunday saying they were “deeply concerned” about the latest developments.
But officials also sought to walk a careful line, as Israel is a critical and long-standing U.S. ally in the Middle East that enjoys widespread support on Capitol Hill.
“I want to stress that all of that concern comes from a place of respect, and friendship and admiration for the Israeli people, and for Israel as a country and Israel’s democracy,” John Kirby, a White House spokesperson on national security issues, told reporters on Monday.
Netanyahu himself responded to Biden’s remarks on Twitter Tuesday, saying that he appreciates Biden’s “longstanding commitment to Israel.”
“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,” the prime minister added.