White House criticism of Israel after its right-wing coalition embarked on a plan to target judicial power is bringing a new kind of turbulence to one of America’s oldest friendships.
On Monday, the Israeli parliament passed a controversial law stripping the Supreme Court of its power to block government decisions, sparking protests. The move – distinct from spats over settlement building or Iran that often rattle the US-Israeli alliance and which the Biden administration repeatedly spoke out against – is the first stage of a wider judicial reform driven by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government that critics fear could hand him unfettered power. It shows that Israel, like the United States, is experiencing an era of right-wing politicians seeking to aggressively flex power and test enshrined democratic constraints.
The drama is likely to further worsen the long-standing but increasingly brittle relationship between President Joe Biden and Netanyahu. The US leader has made safeguarding democracy in the US and abroad a core value of his presidency. The Israeli prime minister, by comparison, is instinctively and politically closer to the ideology of ex-President Donald Trump, Biden’s once and possibly future rival for the White House who has subjected America’s own democratic institutions to their toughest challenge in generations.
But opponents of Netanyahu’s reforms warn that weakening the power of Israel’s Supreme Court will compromise checks on the authority of the most right-wing government in the country’s history, which would pave the way to extremist policies, raise questions about the fair conduct of future elections and ultimately erode its democracy. Similar fears that democratic guardrails are crumbling have shaped American politics ever since Trump swept into power in 2016, then used his station to try to overturn an election he lost in 2020. Now, Trump is targeting a return to the White House and promising “retribution” against judicial and political institutions that tempered his wish to wield strongman power. Like Trump, Netanyahu insists his actions are rooted in a desire to return power to citizens, arguing Monday that his efforts were “a necessary democratic move.”
Netanyahu’s judicial reforms have widened a split between Republicans who largely back the Israeli prime minister and the Democratic-run White House, underscoring increasing political polarization buffeting US-Israel relations.
Still, there’s no sense that the US alliance with Israel is under threat. Biden has long regarded it as unbreakable and has been far less interested in pressuring the Israeli government over dormant peace efforts with the Palestinians than his most recent Democratic predecessors. There is overwhelming support in Congress for US security assistance to Israel worth billions of dollars a year. While there is some debate in foreign policy circles over whether Israel should seek to satisfy more of its own defense needs, this view has nowhere near critical mass on Capitol Hill.
Yet there is deep concern in the White House about the implications of any successful attempt to subvert checks and balances in Israel. This might lead to increasingly extreme policies on the scope of settlement building in the West Bank that contradict US foreign policy goals and could ignite conflict and destabilize the region, causing issues for other US allies like Jordan. If the right-wing coalition in Israel finds it easier to implement policies curtailing the rights of LGBTQ people, Arab citizens or secular Israelis, it could trigger new tensions in US-Israeli relations and cause a political backlash in the US for Biden. And Washington’s national security interests could be harmed by chaos in Israeli society or any conditions that might create a political incentive for Netanyahu to embrace more aggressive policies abroad – possibly over Iran – that could trigger foreign policy crises.
Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, voiced the fears of many longtime US supporters in Israel over an apparent crack in Israeli democracy.
“It’s a very dark day for Israel,” Indyk told Lynda Kinkade on CNN International. “In its 75-year history, it hasn’t faced this kind of threat to its unity caused by an extremist government that’s pushing an anti-democratic legislative agenda that’s generating huge opposition … It’s very dangerous not only for Israel’s internal cohesion, but for the message it sends its enemies.”
The Biden administration has made no secret of its concern over Netanyahu’s renewed effort to push through judicial reforms, worries rendered more acute since the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, lacks an upper House – a constitutional device that many nations use as a way of checking the power of a radical executive. Biden raised the issue in a phone call with Netanyahu last week. He invited New York Times foreign affairs writer Thomas Friedman to the Oval Office to discuss the matter, which led to a strongly worded column. He also issued an unusually frank statement on Sunday, arguing that “given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this – the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus.” Biden’s press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that Monday’s Knesset vote was “unfortunate” and called for “consensus.”
So far, there are no signs that there will be any sanctions against Netanyahu’s government. However, a firm date for a visit to the White House by the Israeli prime minister – something yet to happen in Biden’s term – may remain elusive. This omission is especially glaring since the US leader invited Israeli President Isaac Herzog to the Oval Office last week in a visit that allowed him to celebrate US-Israeli relations. But Biden has little to gain diplomatically or politically from open antagonism, however troubling he finds the behavior of his long-time acquaintance and the extreme forces in the coalition keeping him in power.
“The president is trying to navigate a very fine line,” Aaron David Miller, a long-time negotiator for both Democratic and Republican presidents, told Isa Soares on CNN International on Monday. “American presidents don’t like to fight and have open breaches with Israeli prime ministers. It’s annoying, it’s distracting, it’s messy and politically problematic. … (Biden) has no desire, it seems to me, to impose any cost or consequences not just on the issue of Israeli internal politics, but on what the Israeli government is doing.”
It is a measure of the increased politicization of the diplomatic relationship between Israeli and US leaders that criticisms of Netanyahu by a president who is as pro-Israel as Biden are causing an internal political storm.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week, “Mr. President, nobody here in Congress seems to like it when foreign politicians weigh in on American domestic politics and tell us how to do our job, so I try to stay out of the domestic politics of fellow democracies.”
The Trump-era Republican Party shares a temperamental and ideological outlook that mirrors Netanyahu’s strongman brand of conservatism. And the GOP empathizes with harder line policies toward the Palestinians perpetrated by the Netanyahu coalition. The Israeli leader, meanwhile, often seems to model some of his response to his own legal problems on the scandal response playbook of the scandal-prone former US president. Republican warnings for Biden to stay out of Israeli internal politics are ironic, however, given the Israeli leader’s use of his own influence in the US to play politics in Washington. Netanyahu was viewed with great suspicion in the Obama administration for his efforts to undermine an Iran nuclear deal in Congress. And Netanyahu appeared to align himself politically with Trump while he was in the White House. As he seeks another term, Trump bills himself as the most pro-Israel president in history, noting especially his transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Israel is also increasingly drawn into US presidential elections, since support for the kind of foreign and domestic policies pursued by Netanyahu’s Likud Party and his deeply conservative coalition align with the views of many evangelical Christians and some top donors who are important in GOP primary elections. Former Vice President Mike Pence was quick to rally to Netanyahu’s side Monday, saying on the Hugh Hewitt radio show that Democrats should stop “trying to micromanage what’s happening in the domestic politics in Israel,” adding “we ought to let Israel be Israel.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, another Republican seeking the votes of evangelical voters, also lashed out at the president last week, saying, “Biden needs to butt out” and “let Israel govern itself.”
Continuing political acrimony in Israel also subjects Biden to political irritants form the left of his own party. Earlier this month, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat, blasted Israel as a “racist state.” She later apologized for the remark made to pro-Palestinian protestors, saying she didn’t believe Israel as a nation was racist but that Netanyahu’s government had promoted racist policies.
Like the entire issue of Israeli judicial reform, the flap over Jayapal created a headache for the White House that it would prefer to avoid as Biden embarks on a reelection bid.