Israeli academics and artists call on Biden and UN to shun Netanyahu during his upcoming US visit

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Sep 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg, Pool)

JERUSALEM – Thousands of Israeli academics and artists have urged U.S. President Joe Biden and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to shun Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to the United States next week, underlining the divide between Israel's far-right government and segments of the country's population.

In an open letter published Wednesday, over 3,500 signers, including well-known Israeli writer David Grossman and painter Tamar Getter, called on Biden and Guterres not to meet with Netanyahu or invite him to speak at the U.N. General Assembly’s yearly meeting of world leaders.

The prime minister's office has said Netanyahu will travel to the U.S. next week to visit high-tech leaders in California before flying to New York to address the U.N.

“Netanyahu incites citizens against each other, threatens the country’s security and economy, and turns his face away from the historical conflict that tears Israel apart – the forceful domination of the Palestinian people," the open letter read.

Netanyahu’s public itinerary so far does not feature an appointment with Biden at the White House. Biden said earlier this year he had no intention to meet Netanyahu “in the near term," but the president softened his position in July, leaving open the possibility of informal talks between the leaders or a meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly.

Israel's rightward lurch under Netanyahu's ultranationalist and religiously conservative government that took office late last year has strained the country's critical ties with the U.S.

Netanyahu's push to overhaul the country's judicial system — an effort to weaken the Supreme Court and give more power to the governing coalition — has drawn strong criticism from Washington, where officials have said the U.S.-Israel alliance must be rooted in a shared approach to democracy.

The Biden administration has also expressed increased frustration with the Israeli government's settlement growth in the occupied West Bank, which the U.S. and most of the international community considers a main obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.

The Israeli prime minister's U.S. trip comes as his plan to overhaul the judicial system has plunged Israel into one its gravest domestic crises in history, bringing hundreds of thousands of Israeli protesters into the streets for the past nine months.

Opponents say the overhaul removes a key check on majority rule and will concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and his far-right allies, eroding the country's democratic institutions. Proponents of the plan say the country’s unelected judiciary, led by the Supreme Court, wields too much power.

Biden expressed concerns when Israel's parliament slammed through the first piece of legislation in July, calling the outcome “unfortunate.” On Tuesday, Israel's Supreme Court opened the first case to look at the legality of Netanyahu’s deeply contentious plans.

The country’s academics, artists, business leaders and even military reservists have come out against the overhaul.

“From the outset of establishing his extreme right-wing government, Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition has worked tirelessly to undermine the gatekeepers of Israel’s democracy, weaken the Supreme Court, neutralize the media and destroy the few checks and balances safeguarding the health of our nation,” the open letter read.