Amid partisan protests in Israel — and President Joe Biden openly siding against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's democratic push for judicial reform — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., came out in support of the prime minister.
"Prime Minister Netanyahu is an Israeli patriot, statesman, and most importantly, a great friend of the USA," McCarthy tweeted Thursday. "Free societies have vigorous and open debate. Israel is no exception.
"I support @netanyahu, and America's support for Israel's strong, vibrant democracy is unwavering."
Netanyahu rejected Biden's criticism of his judicial overhaul, telling the U.S. president to stop meddling in Israel politics and saying he rejects outside pressure.
The disagreement came amid months of unrest in Israel opposing Netanyahu's judicial reform.
Netanyahu, put on trial by his political opposition for corruption charges, says the plan is needed to rein in the powers of an interventionist judiciary.
Following especially heavy protests, Netanyahu this week froze the plan and launched negotiations on a compromise with his political opponents. The timeout prompted Biden's ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides, to tell Israeli media he expected Netanyahu to soon be invited to the White House.
But Biden told reporters Wednesday there are no immediate plans for a White House visit, saying: "No, not in the near term."
Netanyahu responded with a statement expressing appreciation for Biden's years of support for Israel and vowing to seek a "broad consensus" over the legal program. But he also dismissed the outside pressure.
"Israel is a sovereign country, which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends," Netanyahu said.
Members of his coalition reacted even more harshly, saying Biden had no business interfering in an internal Israeli matter.
Israel "is not another star in the American flag," said National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Power party. "I expect the U.S. president to understand this point."
Netanyahu later tried to soothe tensions in a speech to the U.S. Summit for Democracy, a virtual gathering of global leaders, saying that while the United States and Israel have "occasional differences," the ties between them are "unshakable."
A senior Israeli official, speaking to reporters, described the spat as a "tempest in a teacup" and said there have not been any discussions with the Americans about a Netanyahu visit to Washington. He spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby also tried to play down the disagreements, saying Biden's comments about the judicial overhaul plan have remained "completely consistent." He also dismissed suggestions they caused tensions in an "unshakable" relationship.
"The great thing about a deep friendship is you can be that candid with one another," Kirby said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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