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Israel's foreign minister takes swipe at US vice president over judicial overhaul

Top diplomat questions whether Kamala Harris has even read Netanyahu's judicial overhaul after she criticised it
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at a press conference after talks with his German counterpart at Foreign Office in Berlin, Germany, on 28 February 2023 (AFP)

Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen took a jab at US Vice President Kamala Harris in a rare public display of the bad blood lingering between the Biden administration and its closest Middle East ally, over a contentious judicial overhaul.

Cohen was responding to comments Harris made during a speech on Tuesday at an event marking Israel's 75th anniversary of statehood hosted by the Israeli embassy in Washington where she stressed the importance of an independent judiciary.

Harris’ remarks were widely seen as aimed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to reshape Israel’s judicial system.

“If we were to ask Kamala Harris what bothers her about the reform, she wouldn’t be able to name a single clause,” Cohen, the Israeli foreign minister told Israel’s Kan news on Wednesday. “I don’t know if [Harris] read the law or not - my assessment is that she hasn’t.”

Israel is the US’s closest Middle East ally, but ties between the two have come under pressure since Netanyahu returned to power last year as head of a coalition with far-right and ultranationalist allies.

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US officials warned Netanyahu earlier this year about giving Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich control of civilian authorities in the occupied West Bank, equating the move with annexation.

In February, the US made a rare decision to support a motion at the UN Security Council condemning Israel’s plan to expand settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

But the fissure over the judicial overhaul is unique because it involves differences over Israel’s domestic politics. Netanyahu’s proposed changes have prompted pushback from many US supporters of Israel, particularly within Biden’s Democratic Party.

In March, a group of nearly 100 Democratic lawmakers warned Biden that the actions of Israel's far-right government were undermining the US-Israel relationship. Biden later waded directly into the issue saying he was “concerned” about the proposal.

Cohen’s remarks drew pushback from US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, who is set to depart his post later this year.

“I have respect for FM Cohen, but the VP said things the administration says [at] every opportunity regarding the shared values and policies. Harris is a strong supporter of Israel,” Nides said.

Cohen later walked back the comments, saying in a statement published in English and Hebrew that he had “deep respect” for Harris while adding that the judicial overhaul remained “an internal issue”.

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