President Biden has had an intense week dealing with the battle inside Israel over the future of its judiciary, speaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone on Monday and President Isaac Herzog, who visited the White House on Tuesday.
To make sure that Biden’s position is crystal clear to all Israelis, he invited me to the Oval Office on Tuesday afternoon and gave me a statement — unprecedented on this issue — expressing his respect for how the “enduring” protests in Israel are demonstrating the “vibrancy of Israel’s democracy,” as well as his wish that Netanyahu’s coalition stop rushing to slam through a constitutional overhaul, without even the semblance of a national consensus, that would sharply diminish the ability of Israel’s Supreme Court to oversee the decisions and appointments of Israel’s government.
Netanyahu has attempted to confuse Israel’s friends in America by playing down the importance of the fundamental change that his government is pushing, by calling it a judicial reform and framing it as small.
But the willingness his government has shown to pay such a huge price for the attack he began on the judiciary early this year — Israeli Air Force reservists refusing to report for duty to defend a “dictatorship,” high-tech investors withdrawing funds, immigration of Jews to Israel sharply reduced and large and disruptive mass protests — demonstrates that what is really at stake is the entire judicial-political balance of power in Israel’s democracy, which does not have a constitution.
Biden is now deeply worried for the stability and future of Israel, America’s most important Middle East ally and a country for which he wears his affection on his sleeve. His message to the Israeli prime minister and president could not have been clearer: Please stop now. Don’t pass anything this important without a broad consensus, or you are going to break something with Israel’s democracy and with your relationship with America’s democracy, and you may never be able to get it back.
“This is obviously an area about which Israelis have strong views, including in an enduring protest movement that is demonstrating the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, which must remain the core of our bilateral relationship,” Biden told me. “Finding consensus on controversial areas of policy means taking the time you need. For significant changes, that’s essential. So my recommendation to Israeli leaders is not to rush. I believe the best outcome is to continue to seek the broadest possible consensus here.”
Israel’s protest movement has been bringing out weekly mass demonstrations of tens of thousands of Israelis for 28 weeks straight — the rough equivalent of three million or four million Americans protesting on the Mall in Washington, D.C., every weekend.
But it is also made up of hundreds of local grass-roots initiatives across all sectors of society, making it a true democracy movement. Biden’s highly unusual acknowledgment of that campaign means that the U.S. government understands that what’s going on in Israel is far beyond a political debate between the government and the opposition.
It is a battle for the soul of the nation.
In that battle, Netanyahu seems to be moving ahead decisively with his power grab to free himself and his government from controls of the Supreme Court before the Knesset adjourns for the summer at the end of July. At stake are Supreme Court decisions such as the striking down of Netanyahu’s attempt to appoint a thrice-convicted right-wing crony, Aryeh Deri, to be Israel’s minister of health, interior and later finance.
That is why the protests are once again increasing in intensity. Tuesday night’s lead story in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper demonstrates how dangerous this is getting: “For over seven months, Israelis have been protesting against the Netanyahu government’s effort to overhaul the country’s judiciary and weaken its gatekeepers. This week, protesters are stepping up resistance as more army reservists threaten to abstain from duty, health care workers announce a two-hour ‘warning strike’ and tens of thousands take to the streets, disrupting traffic across the country.” Israel is nearing a moment of truth.
Biden is clearly walking a tightrope. He’s trying to be respectful of Israel’s right to choose its own path without its American ally intervening in an internal matter (a respect that Netanyahu often neglected when meddling in U.S. politics over the years) while making clear his concern — shared by many of Israel’s key allies in Congress and the American Jewish community — that this may be a fateful moment in Israel’s history for its internal cohesion, as well as for its future relations with America. Biden, as Israel’s friend, felt he could not be silent.
Have no illusions: Many Israelis support Netanyahu’s effort, but polls — and the relative size of demonstrations — indicate that a clear majority oppose it. Netanyahu’s whole coalition cabinet has been losing public support in the latest polls.
But this is the point: The magnitude and tenacity of the protest movement in Israel send a clear signal that the overhaul pushed by the government is unlikely to ever have internal legitimacy and therefore also external legitimacy. That train has left the station.
If Netanyahu just rams it through, it will inevitably compromise the domestic and international stature of Israel’s Supreme Court and, by extension, of Israel’s democracy. We are talking about the foundations of the shared values that underlie the U.S.-Israeli alliance.
Indeed, every Israeli leader should ponder this line from Biden: The protest movement demonstrates “the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, which must remain the core of our bilateral relationship.”
When Biden said that to me, I can tell you he was speaking from his head and his heart. He is basically pleading with Netanyahu and his supporters to understand: If we are not seen to share that democratic value, it will be difficult to sustain the special relationship that Israel and America have enjoyed for the last 75 years for another 75 years.
Our hour-and-15-minute conversation on this topic was a reminder to me that Biden is an old-fashioned Democrat when it comes to Israel, a country whose accomplishments in science and technology and the arts — and its enduring democracy, albeit corroded by its enduring occupation of the Palestinian territories — authentically resonate with him.
That is, in my view, quite unlike cynics like Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy who are perfectly happy to exploit Biden’s efforts to prevent Israel from going over a cliff as being anti-Israel and, even more ridiculously, antisemitic.
Message to Israelis, right, left and center: Joe Biden may be the last pro-Israel Democratic president. You ignore his sincere concerns at your peril.
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