TEL AVIV, Israel — Israeli lawmakers are reconvening after a month-long parliament recess on Monday, resuming the fight over a contentious government plan to overhaul the judiciary that has split Israelis and drawn concern from Israel’s most important ally, the United States.
The tensions will be on full display when the highest-ranking Republican politician in the U.S., House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, addresses the Knesset later Monday.
Israel’s government has portrayed McCarthy’s visit as a nod to bipartisan U.S. support for Israel as it marks 75 years since its creation. Critics say the rare honor given to McCarthy — he’s only the second House speaker to address the Knesset, after Newt Gingrich in 1998 — is a pointed jab at Democratic President Joe Biden. Biden has publicly voiced concern about the legal overhaul and, largely because of it, has so far denied Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a typically customary invitation to the White House after his election win late last year.
McCarthy’s speech underscores the fraught ties between Netanyahu and the Biden White House, driven in part by the legal overhaul and the nationalistic character of the Israel’s furthest-right government in its history.
It is also a sign of the gradual transformation of Israel from a bipartisan matter into a wedge issue in U.S. politics. The trend goes back a decade, when Netanyahu began openly siding with Republicans against Democrats. In parallel, some younger progressive Democrats have become more critical of Israel.
McCarthy is addressing the Knesset at a time when both Republicans and Democrats are steeling for presidential nomination races. Republicans are seeking to portray themselves to voters, especially to evangelical Christians, as the best ally to Israel.
McCarthy and Netanyahu met face to face ahead of the Knesset address and the Republican lavished praise on the Israeli leader, saying his “leadership, character and courage” inspire Americans. Netanyahu said the Knesset would welcome McCarthy “with open arms.”
Before parliament’s break, Netanyahu paused judicial overhaul plans under intense pressure, which has included large weekly protests, a labor strike and threats by military reservists to stop showing up for duty. Biden waded into the criticism, saying Netanyahu “cannot continue down this road.”
While Netanyahu and Biden have known each other for decades, their relationship has soured since Netanyahu returned to office late last year after a brief break as opposition leader. The Biden administration has voiced unease about Netanyahu’s government, made up of ultranationalists who were once at the fringes of Israeli politics and now hold senior positions dealing with the Palestinians and other sensitive issues.
Over the years, Netanyahu, a lifelong conservative with American-accented English and deep ties to the U.S., hasn’t hidden his Republican leanings even as he’s spoken of the importance of keeping Israel a bipartisan issue. In 2015, he delivered a speech to Congress against the Iran nuclear deal which was widely seen as a slight against the Obama administration, which had negotiated the agreement. He was accused of backing Republican Mitt Romney’s candidacy for president and was one of President Donald Trump’s closest international supporters. That Republican tilt has tested ties with American Jews, most of whom lean Democratic.
Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations, said there’s been “serious damage” to Israel’s ties to Washington, and that Netanyahu himself “broke the bipartisanship” surrounding Israel. The McCarthy visit, he said, was a way for both Republicans and Netanyahu to stick it to Biden.
“It’s a counterweight to Biden,” he said. “Netanyahu thinks that if McCarthy visits here it will put pressure on the White House to invite him. Republicans are fighting over who’s the greatest supporter of Israel.”
The White House snub is another sore point for the embattled leader, whose legal plan has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises, sent his Likud party tanking in public opinion polls and tarnished the 73-year-old leader’s legacy. In an interview Sunday with the conservative Israel Hayom daily, McCarthy said that if Biden doesn’t invite Netanyahu to the White House, he will invite him to Congress.
The month-long parliamentary break has allowed Israelis to take stock of the tensions set off by the legal plan, which had been proceeding at a feverish pace in the previous session and had reached a boiling point after Netanyahu dismissed his dissenting defense minister.
The future of the plan isn’t clear. Netanyahu said he was temporarily suspending the drive to change Israel’s judicial system to allow the coalition and the opposition to come to a negotiated compromise. But the talks don’t appear to have produced many agreements and Netanyahu’s allies are pushing him to move ahead if the talks fail.
He’s also facing pressure from the streets — tens of thousands of people who support the overhaul filled the area near parliament on Thursday as a show of force in favor of the legal changes. Protests against the overhaul have continued for 17 weeks, including during the parliament recess, with as much intensity.
At a meeting of his Cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu struck a conciliatory tone.
“We are making every effort to resolve this debate through dialogue. With goodwill by both sides, I am convinced that it is possible to reach agreements — and I give this my full backing,” he said.
As parliament reconvenes, Netanyahu is expected to keep a focus on less divisive issues in the coming weeks, such as passing a budget at a time when Israel’s economy is on shaky ground and inflation is rising.
But he will also face hurdles. He is up against a court-ordered deadline in July, which requires the government to legislate a military draft law about the near-blanket exemptions enjoyed by members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. Instead of serving in the country’s compulsory military, like the majority of secular Jews, ultra-Orthodox men are allowed to study religious texts. Experts say this system keeps the growing community cloistered and does not encourage its integration into the workforce, something seen as necessary to safeguard the future of Israel’s economy.
Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, and his allies say the overhaul is necessary to rein in an interventionist legal system that has taken power away from elected politicians. They want to weaken the Supreme Court, have the government control who becomes a judge and reduce judicial oversight on legislation.
Critics say the changes will upend Israel’s fragile system of checks and balances and imperil the country’s democratic foundations.