Blinken affirms Israel ties, warns on peace after Netanyahu spat

AFP , Friday 31 Mar 2023

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday pledged enduring 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 Tuesday, called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step back from a bid to weaken the judiciary that has set off massive protests.

Netanyahu, who at least temporarily froze the push faced with a general strike, responded that he would not bow to foreign pressure but took a more conciliatory tone when he participated in a democracy summit called by Biden.

In the highest level contact since the exchange, Blinken called Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and "reaffirmed the importance of the enduring US-Israel bilateral relationship," State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said.

Blinken also discussed Iran, seen by Netanyahu as a paramount threat, and renewed US support for a Palestinian state -- an idea rejected by much of Netanyahu's hard-right government.

The top US diplomat "emphasized the importance of refraining from unilateral actions that exacerbate tensions," Patel said in a statement.

'Great ally'

Cohen, in a statement on Twitter, said he talked about "the judicial reform", among other topics, adding that "our relationship with the United States is one of the pillars of our foreign policy."

"We will continuously work to strengthen the dialogue with this great ally", Cohen added.

Biden, who has known Netanyahu for decades, took office hoping to avoid a replay of the public feuding with the Israeli leader seen when he was Barack Obama's vice president.

But the State Department issued strong condemnation after Israel's parliament voted to annul a US-backed rule against certain settlements in the West Bank, and denounced one of Netanyahu's ministers over remarks denying the existence of the Palestinian people.

A senior Israeli official, on condition of anonymity, said Cohen had spoken to several US government officials, after Biden said he hoped the Israeli government would abandon its judicial reform or find a compromise with the opposition.

The proposed reforms would curtail the authority of the Supreme Court and give politicians greater powers over the selection of judges.

After three months of tensions that split the nation, triggered protests by tens of thousands, and a general strike, Netanyahu on Monday announced a "pause" for dialogue on the measures.

The government, a coalition between Netanyahu's Likud party and extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, argues the reforms are needed to rebalance powers between lawmakers and the judiciary.

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