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No signs of White House visit for Israel’s Netanyahu

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to be received at the White House amid concern over his right-wing government’s proposed judicial overhaul.

March 17, 2023
By Simon Lewis
17 March 2023

Eleven weeks into his third stint as Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to be received at the White House, signalling apparent US unhappiness over his right-wing government’s policies.

Most new Israeli leaders had visited the United States or met the president by this point in their premierships, according to a Reuters review of official visits going back to the late 1970s. 

Only two of 13 previous prime ministers heading a new government waited longer.

The White House declined to confirm Netanyahu has yet to be invited. 

A State Department representative referred Reuters to the Israeli government for information about the prime minister’s travel plans.

Israel’s embassy in Washington declined to comment.

“The message they clearly want to send is: If you pursue objectionable policies, there’s no entitlement to the Oval Office sit-down,” said David Makovsky, a former senior adviser to the Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Since the start of the year, demonstrators have filled Israel’s streets to protest the government’s plan to curb the power of the Supreme Court, which critics say removes a check on the governing coalition.

Amid escalating West Bank violence, the right-wing government’s action authorising settler outposts and inflammatory comments from a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet with responsibilities for Jewish settlements have drawn criticism from US officials, including from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during a visit to Israel last week.

US-Israeli ties remain close. 

The US has long been Israel’s main benefactor, sending more than $US3 billion ($A4.5 billion) each year in military assistance.

President Joe Biden has known Netanyahu for decades. 

The two have spoken by phone and senior officials in both countries have made visits since Netanyahu’s government was formed in December, despite Israel’s spiraling political crisis.

But the lack of a White House visit underscores both the desire of the Biden administration to see different policies in Israel and what critics say is a reluctance to take more forceful steps.

US statements on events in Israel have often comprised “frustrating boiler-plate language”, said Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who formerly worked at the State Department on policy towards Israel and the Palestinians.

“It has been frustrating to see this lack of teeth to any of the US responses,” Yerkes said.

“They don’t get to be treated with the same kid gloves that they’ve always been treated with because … they’re on the path to not being a democracy anymore.”

The Biden administration prefers quiet conversations over public criticism, a senior State Department official said, especially when it comes to the crisis over a proposed Israeli judicial overhaul.

The official said the goal was to encourage Israel’s leaders to build consensus over the reforms, rather than be prescriptive on what the outcome should be.

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