Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, responding to domestic and international blowback over his attempt to subvert Israel’s independent judiciary, told American Jewish leaders in remarks on Sunday to chill.
He insisted Israel would remain a democracy despite his autocratic power play to give a bare majority of the Knesset power to reverse Supreme Court decisions. In remarks to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Netanyahu said, in essence: pipe down. “All democracies should respect the will of other free peoples, just as we respect their democratic decisions.” That’s how Netanyahu talks to some of Israel’s most devoted supporters.
On Monday, things went downhill from there. In the Knesset, Netanyahu’s government moved forward “with a contentious plan to overhaul the country’s legal system, despite an unprecedented uproar that has included mass protests, warnings from military and business leaders and calls for restraint by the United States,” the Associated Press reported. “Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered outside … for a second straight week to rally against the plan as lawmakers prepared to hold an initial vote.”
In a rare break from his generally ceremonial role, Israeli President Isaac Herzog of the opposition Labor Party has tried to offer a compromise. Netanyahu has refused to slow down.
Domestically and internationally, the move is widely viewed as the sort of assault on judicial independence seen in Poland and Hungary that provoked European Union condemnation and sanctions. In that sense, Netanyahu is wrong in saying democracies sit mutely by while their allies trash democratic institutions.
Some of Israel’s staunchest defenders have lamented Netanyahu’s move. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) last week released a heartfelt letter “to our friend and ally as a family member who is concerned.” He wrote: “Out of love for the people of Israel and our shared values, I am fearful for the future of democracy in Israel as the right-wing Netanyahu government threatens to undermine the essential checks-and-balances that make democracies work.” Cardin added, “I urge the prime minister and his cabinet to listen to President Isaac Herzog and the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have taken to the streets in peaceful protest to protect the independence of the judiciary.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken made private and public pleas to do the same in January during his visit to Israel. President Biden released a gently couched statement. “The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary,” he told columnist Thomas L. Friedman. “Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides put it more colloquially in an interview with David Axelrod. “We’re telling the prime minister — as I tell my kids — ‘pump the brakes, slow down, try to get a consensus, bring the parties together.’ ” He received a nasty response from Likud’s diaspora minister. “I say to the U.S. ambassador: ‘Pump the brakes yourself, and mind your own business.’ ”
It would be a rude awakening for Israel if American Jews actually did “butt out,” depriving Israel of their multifaceted support.
Few people know Israel better than the veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, who tells me that it is “unprecedented for the Israeli public, on a sustained basis, to protest on the magnitude that we are now witnessing.” Opponents of the change, Ross explains, “believe Israel’s democratic character is being fundamentally threatened. The proponents think the judiciary denies the will of the public.” Polls show that “roughly 2/3 of the Israeli public wants the process to be slowed down and want to see a compromise.”
By insisting on virtually unchecked power for a bare majority of the Knesset, Netanyahu is endangering the ability of the United States to support Israel when challenged before international bodies, Ross explains. Such defenses are made on the grounds that Israel “has a credible and independent judiciary where abuses and claims can be brought. Take away that independence and there will be implications for what and how the U.S. can defend Israel.”
But Netanyahu’s arrogance knows no bounds. He may well try to steamroll the Israeli public and his closest allies, risking an unprecedented domestic crisis and a severe international backlash, which Israeli leaders have already warned will endanger the country’s economy.
Ultimately, the Israeli people must decide if this is the country they want, the international climate they are prepared to endure and the future they aspire to pass on to their children.