WASHINGTON — In February 2021, when President Biden sat down at the Resolute Desk for a phone call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, he was in the mood to reminisce about their decadeslong relationship: Who would have thought, the new president mused from his Oval Office perch, that they would both end up where they did?
Their relationship has been tested in the two years since that call.
Netanyahu has been removed from power only to be reelected, stood trial for corruption charges, and moved to change the makeup of his country’s judiciary branch, supporting legislation, passed Thursday, that would make it more difficult to remove him from office.
Netanyahu has vowed to move further with a plan to give the government greater control over the Supreme Court, which could allow his far-right administration to end the corruption trial against him. On Thursday, the White House issued a statement that emphasized what the president recently told the prime minister privately: “Democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
The crisis in Israel, which has set off mass protests, shows the limits of Biden’s influence on Netanyahu. But it also highlights how Biden, who has warned that democracies around the world are vulnerable to an uprising of populist and authoritarian forces, now faces not only a foreign policy challenge — but a domestic one, as well.
Concern is growing among American Jewish leaders who say they are alarmed by the move to overhaul the Israeli judiciary at a time when groups of Americans, particularly young ones, are cooling on their support for Israel.
“People feel that the very character of the state is on the chopping block,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.
Biden has long treated Netanyahu as an old friend with whom he happens to share deep differences. On a call last Sunday, he called Netanyahu with a set of concerns: Americans across the political spectrum, Biden told him, were alarmed by different parts of the judicial reform package. The president urged Netanyahu to “make the difficult choices and compromises necessary” to guide the country through this challenging period, according to an administration official familiar with what was discussed.
People who know both men say they have always been direct in their communication and have tried to keep their disagreements behind closed doors. Biden often switches between a casual tone — “Hey, man, what’s going on?” is often his opening line, according to two people familiar with their discussions — and sharpness when he speaks with the prime minister, depending on the matter at hand.
On Sunday, the two spoke about Iran and the conditions in the West Bank heading into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, where concerns over further conflict are high after a spate of violent conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis. After the two spoke, White House officials had hoped that Netanyahu would seek an exit from a judicial reform package that has drawn mass protests across Israel.
But as Netanyahu pledged Thursday to move forward with plans to give the government greater control over appointments to the Supreme Court, observers said that Biden’s attempts to nudge the prime minister toward an offramp may have been futile.
“He’s going for it; that’s the bottom line,” Makovsky said, referring to Netanyahu’s decision to push the judicial overhaul plan. “He’s going forward with the most contentious part.”
There have been other high-stakes cases, aides to Biden pointed out, when the rapport between the pair has helped calm tensions. In May of 2021, their dynamic was tested when tensions among Palestinian protesters, Israeli police and right-wing Israelis devolved into two weeks of intense fighting between Hamas militants and Israeli forces. The clash left over 200 people dead, many of them killed by Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.
At one point, the president sharply told Netanyahu that he would only be able to fend off criticism of the Gaza strikes for so long. The two spoke a half dozen times during that period, according to a person familiar with their conversations. Even then, the president never publicly wavered: “There is no shift in my commitment, commitment, to the security of Israel, period,” Biden said, bucking pressure from within his own party to take a more skeptical stance toward an ally whose politics have shifted increasingly to the right, observers say, as a means of political survival.
Though Netanyahu has governed Israel for much of the past quarter-century, Biden — as he is quick to point out — has enjoyed close relationships with Israeli leaders dating back to Golda Meir, the country’s fourth prime minister.
“Every chance to return to this great country, where the ancient roots of the Jewish people date back to biblical times, is a blessing,” Biden said on a trip to Israel — his 10th visit — last July. “Because the connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep. It’s bone deep. Generation after generation, that connection grows. We invest in each other. We dream together. We’re part of what has always been the objective we both had.”
On that trip, Biden was greeted by Yair Lapid, a moderate who served as prime minister for only five months. Still, the president made time to attend a meeting with the country’s opposition leader: Netanyahu.
Biden has been able to speak frankly with Netanyahu, several people familiar with that relationship said, in part because their relationship stretches back to the 1980s. The president was a senator when he first met Netanyahu, who was then a young, ambitious deputy chief of mission in Washington. Netanyahu eventually returned to Israel, where he was elected prime minister for the first time in 1996. (When he lost in 1999, Biden wrote him a letter.)
As vice president, Biden made it a point to publicly say he and Netanyahu were “still buddies,” despite the prime minister’s public efforts to kill President Barack Obama’s efforts to broker a nuclear pact with Iran. They are far from teammates. During the nuclear accord talks, Biden declined to attend an address that Netanyahu was invited to give by John Boehner, a Republican and the former House speaker.
In 2010, Biden was sent to Israel to assure Netanyahu of Washington’s commitment to Israel’s security, only to be blindsided by an announcement that the government would build settlements for 1,600 Jews in East Jerusalem, a neighborhood that is a regular flashpoint between Israelis and Palestinians. Biden decried the move as “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.” Netanyahu denied knowing anything about it.
Perhaps the most illuminating anecdote illustrating their relationship came from Biden in 2014, when he spoke at a dinner for the Jewish Federations of North America: “I signed a picture for Bibi a long time ago,” Biden said, using a nickname for Netanyahu, according to a CNN report. “He’s been a friend for over 30 years. I said, ‘Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say but I love you.’”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.