In Israel’s political turmoil, the Biden administration eyes a threat to US security interests

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Joe Biden has not hidden his disdain of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned rehaul of Israel’s courts.

But bubbling beneath the surface of Israel’s political crisis is another concern: shared U.S.-Israel security interests.

As Israeli reservists pledge to boycott call-ups in protest of the controversial judicial reform legislation, experts say Israel’s enemies could see opportunity — and that the Biden administration is worried. Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is headed to Israel next week to check in on the Israeli military, reports claimed on Wednesday.

“The United States has lots of partners in the Middle East, but Israel is by far its closest and strongest partner in the Middle East,” said Shira Efron, the senior director of policy research at the Israel Policy Forum, a group that advocates for a two-state outcome to the conflict. “If Israel’s capabilities and its readiness is affected, the United States loses capabilities in the Middle East.”

Biden has cast his concerns about Netanyahu’s planned judicial overhaul by emphasizing the democratic values the countries share and that he has extolled for his entire political life. “They cannot continue down this road,” Biden said on March 28.

But just two days earlier, on March 26, a White House communications glitch revealed that military readiness was also front of mind. That was the day Neyanyahu fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, for calling for a suspension of the legislation, in part because of the harm the political tensions were causing the military.

The Biden administration said it was “deeply concerned” by the firing. An early version of the National Security Council statement, released to the Times of Israel, read: “We are deeply concerned by the ongoing developments in Israel, including the potential impact on military readiness raised by Minister Gallant.”

The NSC removed the phrase about military readiness from later versions of the statement — NSC spokesmen never answered questions as to why — and Netanyahu rescinded his firing of Gallant.

But even as Gallant remains in place, deep questions remain about the degree to which Israel’s searing political divide have weakened its vaunted military and intelligence apparatuses. Netanyahu — and even his son Yair, on social media — has clashed with top military brass, and reports claim the prime minister aims to shake up parts of the army’s chain of command.

Netanyahu has batted down concerns, saying that the changes to the courts that have passed are minor and that he is no longer committed to other parts of the proposed rehaul his government rolled out in January. His opponents don’t believe him and continue to flood the streets at least once a week in massive protests.

He also remains bullish on U.S.-Israel relations, talking up cybersecurity cooperation and artificial intelligence research this month to a delegation of U.S. congressional Democrats who toured Israel on a mission sponsored by an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

“The future belongs to those who innovate but the future also belongs to the free societies who cooperate with each other to assure that our people, our citizens, get the benefits of AI and not its curses,” he said. “I think in this regard, and in many other regards, Israel has no better ally than the United States and the United States has no better ally than Israel.”

Security cooperation very much underpins the U.S.-Israel relationship, said Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an influential think tank that has as its main focus the threat posed by Iran.

“The bilateral relationship on the military and security level is as strong as ever,” Dubowitz said in an interview. “I think the concern is what” the political turmoil will do “specifically to Israeli military preparedness and security with Iran on the cusp of nuclear weapons.”

U.N. inspectors say Iran is closer than ever to enriching uranium at a weaponization level. But even absent a nuclear weapon, Iran poses multiple threats to U.S. interests in the region, ranging from its arming of Hezbollah in Lebanon to its upholding the Assad regime in Syria.

Israel has been key to keeping Iran off balance while the United States deals with other regional threats, Efron said. She cited U.S.-Israel coordination in Syria in the late 2010s, when the country was wracked by civil war, as an example.

“You have a partner with mutual goals,” Efron said. “If one of the partners, the IDF, can’t do one of the tasks, it’s suboptimal.”

The threat to IDF readiness stems from thousands of military reservists who have sworn to stop volunteering if Netanyahu advances his overhaul of the courts, which opponents say would sap the judiciary of much of its independence.

Israelis protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul, near the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, March 23, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Most reserve duty in Israel is mandatory, but a subset of volunteers for elite service in commando units, the air force and intelligence are exempt. Reservists in each of those disciplines are prominent among the dissenters.

The greatest threat is to the airforce, where reserve pilots take weekly training flights in order to qualify as ready for combat.

“You know, 60% to 70% of missions by the Israeli Air Force are done by reservists and some of them are going on strike,” said David Makovsky, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank with ties to the U.S. and Israeli governments. “If you don’t train, you can’t fly.”

Natan Sachs, the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said reservist defections would have an effect at least in the short term.

“In the short term, there could be operational issues, especially if particular units are not up to up to Israeli standards, which are pretty high standards,” he said. “The numbers are considerable, especially in some of the squadrons.

That lack of readiness could undercut the high-profile joint exercises the United States and Israel periodically stage as a show of unity and force, and as a signal that the United States is ready to keep Iran’s ambitions contained. The most recent exercise was one called Juniper Oak, in January.

Dubowitz said the political tensions are distracting Israel from other pressing diplomatic and security matters, including intensifying Israeli-Palestinian violence in the West Bank, heightened tensions with Hezbollah on the Lebanese border and the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which both Netanyahu and Biden see as a priority.

“There’s a growing possibility we’ll have war with Hezbollah, the West Bank is on fire,” he said. “Judicial reform has eclipsed all other compelling national security priorities, and then also opportunities, there’s a 50-50 possibility of a deal with the Saudis by the end of the year.”

Another reason Biden does not need Israeli instability is his focus on other regions. Like his two predecessors, Donald Trump and Barack Obama, Biden sees the preeminent long term threat in Chinese ambitions. Short term, he wants Ukraine to roust Russia from its invasion of the country.

Israel’s preoccupation with its domestic turmoil “could mean that the U.S. needs to do more in this region,” Efron said. “The U.S. doesn’t want to do more in this region. They want to focus on Russia. They want to focus on China.”

Sachs noted that Israel’s enemies, including leaders of Hezbollah and the Iranian regime, have indicated that they see an opportunity in Israel’s crisis, depicting it as accelerating Israel’s demise.

Israel’s enemies would be wise to be wary, Sachs said. Israel’s military remains formidable, and its reduced readiness poses a threat to its enemies: With fewer soldiers on duty, Israel would use blunter means of retaliation than the highly targeted systems usually available, causing greater damage.

Efron identified a longer-term concern in the presence in Netanyahu’s government of far right extremists. That could affect intelligence sharing, which has remained intensely close whatever other tensions have afflicted U.S.-Israel relations. Spies are less naturally inclined to share information with regimes that have radically different cultures, she said.

“You do this with partners you see eye to eye with,” she said of intelligence sharing. “The lack of shared values creates a challenge for the United States.”

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