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Biden expresses concern for Israel judicial overhaul plan

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

When Benjamin Netanyahu became Israeli prime minister again last fall, many predicted that relations between the White House and the right-wing prime minister could get rough, and they certainly have. Tensions simmered for a few months before boiling over this past week on an issue that wasn't expected - the future of Israeli democracy. And while leaders on both sides are continually reaffirming the close ties between Israel and the United States, the spat between Netanyahu and President Biden tells us a lot about the current state of politics inside both countries. We're joined now by NPR's Asma Khalid, who covers the White House, and NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Good afternoon to you both.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hey there. Good to be with you.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

DETROW: Daniel, let's start with you. Can you just recap the core issue here? What is the big tension point between Netanyahu's coalition and the White House?

ESTRIN: Sure. Well, it started when Netanyahu came back into office a few months ago. He appointed cabinet ministers who are on the far right, who have a history of racism toward Palestinians. They sparked a series of controversies. The White House has basically boycotted these cabinet ministers. And then the U.S. asked Israel to calm tensions in the West Bank. But Israel has conducted some especially deadly military operations there. Israel has made some moves on Jewish settlements in the occupied territory there, which has upset the US.

But Israel has become consumed by these historic protests over Netanyahu's efforts to remake the judiciary. Major swaths of society have come out saying that they're worried that Israel could become a dictatorship and worried that Israel's far right wants to advance a fundamentalist religious agenda. You have even had Netanyahu's own son falsely claiming on Twitter that the State Department has been fueling these protests. And this is climaxed when President Biden stepped in.

KHALID: Yeah. That's right. I mean, if I can jump in here, Daniel, I mean, you know, traditionally, the White House will admonish its allies in private. But I was traveling with Biden the day after Netanyahu had announced this pause on his plans for the judicial reform. And I asked President Biden, you know, how concerned are you about the health of democracy in Israel?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I'm very concerned, and I'm concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road.

KHALID: And I was really struck by what Biden had to say because what I asked was a fairly open-ended question. But he said he thinks it remains to be seen what happens.

DETROW: OK. So, Asma, let's zoom out a little bit when it comes to what Biden is thinking, what the White House is thinking. As much as they deny it, politicians, in the end, do things for political reasons, right? So what kind of pressure is President Biden responding to right now?

KHALID: Well, I think there's dual pressures, right? I mean, he's been facing pressure from some within the Democratic Party to do more in response to Israel. And then he was facing some pressure from Republicans to do less. I will say, you know, within the Democratic Party, also, I think there is certainly debate on how to respond to Israel. You have folks within the progressive wing who have been arguing that, you know, the United States government should say, for example, condition aid to Israel because of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories.

But what was really putting a lot of pressure, I think, on the Biden White House here is that there was mounting pressure on this issue of the judicial reforms coming from more mainstream Democratic circles. Earlier this month, you saw more than 90 Democratic lawmakers sign a letter expressing their deep concerns over the plans in Israel to change the structure of the judiciary.

DETROW: We are also, as we were reminded in many different ways this week, at the beginning of a presidential campaign. There are several Republicans running for president. How are top Republicans talking and thinking about this?

KHALID: We're seeing unconditional support from Republicans. You saw the House speaker, Kevin McCarthy issue a statement in support of Netanyahu, calling him a patriot. And then you're also seeing, you know, to your point, Republican presidential hopefuls enter this debate and really create this wedge around the politics of supporting Israel.

DETROW: OK. So, Daniel, back to the Israeli side of this. I think - I mean, the notable thing at this moment, at least, is that Netanyahu has temporarily backed down. Was it the U.S. pressure that caused Netanyahu to do that?

ESTRIN: Yeah. That's an interesting question. I mean, we can't ignore that hours before Netanyahu postponed the legislation, Biden sent a message to Netanyahu to stop the legislation. And Netanyahu knows that he needs the White House on his side. And, you know, in the fallout of all of this, senior Israeli officials have been speaking to reporters, including NPR, that it's just inappropriate for the U.S. to intervene in Israel's affairs on this question.

But, you know, I think the bigger factor in why Netanyahu put the brakes on this was domestic. It was domestic pressure. I mean, the economy was taking a hit. Netanyahu's approval ratings were plummeting, and you had historic protests in the streets. You had fighter pilots doing something they've never done - refusing to show up for service.

So Netanyahu put on the brakes but did not stop the car entirely. You know, the saga is not over. Netanyahu will be under pressure to try to come up with something that will please the White House but also to please his own far-right coalition, which really, really wants some kind of judicial overhaul. And that far-right coalition of his has the power to bring him down, to bring down his government.

DETROW: The fact is that U.S. support for Israel is so important to the country, particularly military aid. Is there real concern in Israel, or is there a conversation about if this tension continues, perhaps down the line, the U.S. could lessen its support for the country or make it more conditional?

ESTRIN: That is something that previously was unthinkable to Israelis, that the U.S. would even dare to withhold or to rethink its aid to Israel. And now that is coming up more and more. You know, Israel's survival depends on U.S. military aid. That is why it's such a big deal.

DETROW: That was NPR's Asma Khalid and Daniel Estrin. Thank you.

KHALID: Happy to do it.

ESTRIN: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.