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Biden, Netanyahu talk "checks and balances" amid Israeli judicial crisis

Israeli court overhaul attempt divides nation
Netanyahu’s push to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court divides nation | 60 Minutes 13:15

President Biden met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday to discuss what the American leader called "hard issues" related to upholding democratic values. 

The meeting comes amid an ongoing judicial crisis in Israel. Netanyahu, who is leading Israel's most far-right government ever, is seeking to weaken the country's Supreme Court. The attempted overhaul has sparked nine months of unrest and protests.  

What Biden, Netanyahu talked about at their New York City meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly

"Today, we're going to discuss some of the hard issues, and that is: upholding democratic values that lie at the heart of our partnership, including the checks and balances in our systems; and preserving the path to a negotiated two-state solution; and ensuring that Iran never -- never acquires a nuclear weapon," Mr. Biden said. 

Netanyahu later during the meeting said he wanted to "reassert" that "one thing is certain and one thing will never change, and that is Israel's commitment to democracy."

"We will continue to uphold the values that both our proud democracies cherish," Netanyahu said. "And I think that, working together, we'll realize the promise, roll back the dangers, and bring a better future for our region and the world."

The pair did not publicly discuss the judicial overhaul in the portion of the New York CIty meeting open to the press. A senior Biden administration official after the meeting addressed the judicial changes. 

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they could not speak for Israeli leadership or Netanyahu. The official added that there was an understanding that there was a need for compromise on the issue of judicial overhaul  in Israel. 

Biden and Netanyahu past sparring over judicial issue 

Mr. Biden previously urged Netanyahu to walk away from the overhaul. The president in March said he was very concerned about the proposal.

"They cannot continue down this road, and I've sort of made that clear," Mr. Biden said. "Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can try to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen."

Netanyahu has argued that Israel's unelected judges wield too much power. 

"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 posted on social media in March after the president made his comments. 

The protests in Israel

Netanyahu has faced immense pressure at home. Up to 200,000 Israelis across the country have protested the judicial overhaul attempts every Saturday night for over eight months. 

Many Israelis see weakening the court as a power grab, since it is the only check in Israel on the government.

Some protesters contend that without a strong Supreme Court, the ultra-Orthodox bloc in the government could turn Israel into a theocracy, where biblical laws prevail.

Ron Scherf, a member of a military reservists group called Brothers and Sisters in Arms, on 60 Minutes described the weakening of Israel's Supreme Court as an "existential threat to Israel." 

"When a regime, a government, wants to gain unlimited power, people are afraid. And the people in the streets today are afraid that the government is going to gain unlimited power without judicial review," Scherf said.

Ron Scherf 60 Minutes

Justice Minister and Vice Prime Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the controversial judicial overhaul, told 60 Minutes he respects protesters' rights, but said they need to remember that his government won the election.

"The situation in Israel is that the Supreme court is above the government, is above the parliament, is even above the will of the people," Levin said. "What I want to do is to balance it."

Levin characterized the court as a group of elites that too often overrules lawmakers chosen by the people. 

The first step of Levin's judicial overhaul passed in July, severely limiting the court's power to strike down government decisions.

Around 10,000 military reservists were so upset that they pledged to stop showing up for duty. The Israeli military has warned that losing so many reservists could jeopardize readiness and hurt national security.

"What's the price of democracy? What are you suggesting me to do? We'll tell the Israel citizens, 'OK, don't go to vote.There's no need to hold elections,'" Levin told 60 Minutes. "We'll come to those ex-militarists and will ask them what we are allowed to do or not."

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