The White House has deemed it “unfortunate” that Israel’s legislature passed a bill that aims to curb the powers of the country’s top court, stressing that the administration of US President Joe Biden believes major changes should be decided by “consensus”.
In a brief statement on Monday, just hours after the Israeli Knesset passed the legislation, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said, “It is unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority.”
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“As a lifelong friend of Israel, President Biden has publicly and privately expressed his views that major changes in a democracy to be enduring must have as broad a consensus as possible,” she said.
The judicial overhaul plan put forward by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government has drawn months of widespread protests in Israel and spurred condemnation among progressive legislators in the United States – the country’s top ally.
And on Sunday, Biden expressed reservations about the bill. “From the perspective of Israel’s friends in the United States, it looks like the current judicial reform proposal is becoming more divisive, not less,” he told the Axios news website in a statement.
“Given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this — the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus,” Biden added.
But despite the criticism, the Knesset passed the bill in a 64-0 vote on Monday.
Opposition legislators had abandoned the chamber in protest ahead of the passage of the law, which is the first piece of legislation approved in a wider effort by Netanyahu’s coalition government to overhaul the Israeli judiciary.
That plan was originally announced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin in January, sparking weekly demonstrations and condemnation from across Israeli society.
Those protests continued on Monday, with police outside the Knesset using water cannons and deploying mounted officers against a crowd of demonstrators.
US rebukes ‘friend’
The issue has been a point of contention for the Biden administration, which has at times chafed against Netanyahu’s government while continuing to stress that Washington’s commitment to Israel remains “ironclad”.
The US provides about $3.8bn in unconditional aid to Israel annually.
Observers also have noted that the US criticism is somewhat unique, as it deals directly with domestic Israeli policy, and not Israel’s regional dealings or its policy towards the occupied Palestinian territories.
Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett, reporting from Washington, DC, on Monday afternoon, said the Israeli judicial overhaul plan has created friction between Netanyahu and Biden.
“The US president believes that the priorities of Benjamin Netanyahu seem to be off kilter, if you will – that the priorities, [the remaking] of the judiciary, is not what Israel should be looking at right now,” Halkett said.
“This is the message that is being sent from Washington and the concern is that Israel is simply not listening.”
In March, Biden told reporters that he hoped Netanyahu “walks away” from the planned overhaul.
That prompted a response from Netanyahu, who said in a statement 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”.
Netanyahu’s coalition government, which is composed of far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, has argued that the proposed changes are needed to ensure a better balance of power in the country.
Critics say, however, that the bill paves the way for a more authoritarian leadership unbound by checks and balances from the Supreme Court. The legislation passed on Monday would limit the top court’s powers to void some government decisions.
Following the vote, opposition leader Yair Lapid decried the move as a “defeat for Israeli democracy”.
The division has reached the Israeli military, with protest leaders saying thousands of volunteer reservists would not report for duty if the overhaul efforts continue.
The Histadrut trade union confederation, which represents about 800,000 workers in Israel, has also threatened a general strike in response to the passage of the bill. It also urged the government to resume negotiations with the opposition.
In Monday’s statement, the White House’s Jean-Pierre said Washington would continue to support the efforts of Israeli President Isaac Herzog and other leaders in Israel “as they seek to build a broader consensus through political dialogue”.
Later in the day, US Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller also sought to dispel concerns that the judicial overhaul would hurt US-Israel relations, telling reporters that Washington has “a longstanding friendship with the government of Israel that really transcends any one issue”.
“And it is because of our friendship with the government of Israel and our friendship with the people of Israel that the president and other members of this administration felt the responsibility to speak out against this measure and express our concern,” Miller said during a briefing.
“We will continue to engage with the government of Israel about other pending legislation in the coming weeks.”