After row with White House, Blinken calls Israeli FM, affirms friendly ties

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WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday pledged permanent ties with Israel but warned against inflaming tensions with the Palestinians, following a rare public spat between the allies.

President Joe Biden, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step back from an attempt to weaken the judiciary that has sparked massive protests.

Netanyahu, who temporarily froze pressure, faced with a general strike and mass protests, responded that he would not pressurize the foreigner but took a more conciliatory tone when he participated in a democracy summit that asked Biden.

In the most high-profile contact since the exchange, Blinken called Foreign Affairs Minister Eli Cohen and “reaffirmed the importance of an enduring bilateral relationship between the US and Israel,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said.

Blinken also discussed Iran, which Netanyahu views as a key threat, and renewed US support for a Palestinian state – an idea rejected by much of Netanyahu’s hard-right government.

The top US diplomat “stressed the importance of refraining from unilateral actions that exacerbate tensions” with the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors, Patel said in a statement.

US President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, March 28, 2023, en route to Washington. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

In his statement, Cohen said the two discussed the expansion of relations with Arab states as part of the Abraham Accords, Israel’s efforts to qualify for the US visa waiver program, and the judicial reform legislation.

“Relationship with the USA is one of the pillars of our foreign policy. We will work in every way to strengthen the dialogue with our great friend, and I am happy that a channel is open for conversation between me and the secretary of state,” tweeted Cohen.

Biden, who has known Netanyahu for many years, took office hoping to avoid a repeat of the public feud with the Israeli leader seen when he was Barack Obama’s vice president.

The latest and most severe blow to the bilateral relationship – which has slowly deteriorated since Netanyahu returned to office three months ago at the head of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history – came on Tuesday when Biden was asked about the state of the Israeli democracy. and the judicial overhaul planned by the prime minister before boarding Air Force One.

The president responded that he expected Netanyahu to “walk away” from his current judicial reform legislation, and that he was “very concerned” about the health of Israeli democracy. “They cannot continue down this road. And that’s clear to me,” Biden said. “I hope the prime minister will act… to work out a real compromise, but that remains to be seen.”

Biden also gave an emphatic “no” when asked if he would be inviting Netanyahu to the White House, adding: “Not soon.”

US President Joe Biden meets with then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (right) at the Presidential Palace in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. At left are Secretary of State Antony Blinken; Second from left is US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. (GPO)

Netanyahu responded shortly after saying that he respects Biden’s friendship and long-term commitment to Israel and emphasized that the US-Israel alliance is “unbreakable” and can overcome differences. The chief executive also said that his government is committed to correcting what he claims is an imbalance of power between Israel’s three branches of government but that he wants to do so with as broad a consensus as possible.

However, Netanyahu closed by dissing Biden, saying that “Israel is a sovereign country that makes its decisions according to the will of its people and not based on pressure from abroad, including the best of friends.”

Later in the day, the prime minister did some damage of his own, telling the State Department’s Democracy Summit that Israel’s “alliance with the United States is “unbelievable” and saying he was trying to “build a broad national consensus ” regarding judicial reform.

The White House welcomed these statements.

“It’s pretty good about it. He talked about looking for compromise. He talked about working towards developing a consensus regarding these potential judicial reforms. He talked about how untenable he knows the relationship between the United States and Israel. And he talked about the great respect he has for President Biden – that’s a respect that President Biden also shares,” said White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, addressing a press conference.

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