The White House on Sunday urged “Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible,” as widespread unrest broke out in Israel after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his defense minister for objecting to judicial reforms that Netanyahu is seeking to enact.
“We are deeply concerned by today’s developments out of Israel, which further underscore the urgent need for compromise,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement. “As the President recently discussed with Prime Minister Netanyahu, democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
The turmoil started when Netanyahu, newly returned to office after another in a seemingly endless series of extremely close elections, announced a plan to overhaul the judiciary. Netanyahu’s package of judicial changes would essentially strip Israel’s top court of its independence and defang the nation’s courts by making it possible for the government to pass legislation that can’t be reviewed by judges.
Protests against the measures have been widespread for weeks. Opponents have characterized the plans as anti-democratic and a boost to Netanyahu’s power at a time when the prime minister himself is facing criminal charges.
“It’s an attack on the very soul and nature of our democracy,” former Prime Minister Ehud Barak said earlier this month. Barak urged Israelis to resort to mass civil disobedience to block the judicial reforms.
On Saturday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant spoke out against the legislation; on Sunday, Netanyahu fired him, saying, “We must all stand strong against refusal.”
Protests against Gallant’s firing immediately broke out in Israel’s major cities. The Associated Press reported that “protesters in Tel Aviv blocked a main highway and lit large bonfires, while police scuffled with protesters who gathered outside Netanyahu’s private home in Jerusalem.”
The White House statement said that disagreements over Netanyahu’s current policies would not disrupt the U.S.-Israel relationship, which traditionally has been very close.
“U.S. support for Israel’s security and democracy remains ironclad,” the statement said.
Given America’s close relationship with Israel, and the Biden administration’s general hesitation to openly criticize such an important Middle Eastern ally, the White House statement on Sunday was relatively pointed.
The administration has known for a while that this Netanyahu-led coalition is an unusually extreme one, but it had hoped that Netanyahu could keep it in line. The prime minister had insisted that the far-right members of his coalition were joining him and not the other way around, and that he was in charge.
As a result, Biden administration officials had said they intended to hold him responsible for whatever happened. But they were also keenly aware of the many factors that Netanyahu is juggling, including his desire to avoid further prosecution on corruption charges — one of the reasons he is believed to have acquiesced to some of the demands of his coalition partners.
When asked on Sunday whether the administration had any immediate Israel-related plans beyond issuing the statement, U.S. officials did not offer comment.