President Biden had a busy week dealing with the battle in 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 was 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 “ongoing” protests in Israel show the “vigor of Israel’s democracy,” as well as his desire for Netanyahu’s coalition to stop rushing to push through a constitutional review, even without the appearance of a national consensus, which would sharply reduce the ability of Israel’s Supreme Court to control decisions and appointments of Israel. government
Netanyahu tried to confuse Israel’s friends in America by downplaying the importance of the fundamental change that his government is pushing, calling it legal reform and framing it as small.
But the willingness his government has shown to pay such a huge price for the attack he launched on the judiciary earlier 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 – prove that what is really at stake is the entire juridical-political balance of power in the democracy of Israel, which does not have a constitution.
Biden is now deeply concerned about the stability and future of Israel, America’s most important Middle Eastern ally and a country for which he wears his love on his sleeve. His message to the Israeli prime minister and president could not be clearer: Please stop now. Don’t pass something so important without broad consensus, or you will break something with the democracy of Israel and with your relationship with the democracy of the United States, and you may never be able to get it back.
“This is obviously an area that Israelis have strong opinions about, including an ongoing protest movement that demonstrates the vitality of Israeli democracy, which must remain at the core of our bilateral relationship,” Biden told me. “Finding consensus on controversial policies means taking the time you need. For major changes, that is essential. So my advice to Israeli leaders is not to rush. I believe the best outcome is to continue to seek the broadest possible consensus this there.”
Israel’s protest movement has held weekly mass demonstrations by tens of thousands of Israelis for 28 weeks in a row — the rough equivalent of three or four million Americans protesting on the Mall in Washington, DC, every weekend.
But it also consists of hundreds of local people’s initiatives across all sectors of society, making it a true democratic movement. Biden’s very unusual admission about that campaign means that the US government understands that what is happening 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 appears to be moving forward decisively with his power grab to free himself and his government from Supreme Court checks before the Knesset adjourns for the summer at the end of July. At stake are Supreme Court decisions such as the removal of Netanyahu’s attempt to appoint a thrice-convicted right-wing associate, Aryeh Deri, as Israel’s minister of health, interior and later finance.
That is why the protests are intensifying again. Tuesday night leading story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz proves how dangerous this is becoming: “For more than 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 walk away from duty, health workers announce a two-hour “warning strike” and tens of thousands take to the streets, disrupting traffic across the country.” Israel is approaching a moment of truth.
Biden is clearly walking a tightrope. He tries to be respectful of Israel’s right to choose its own path without its American ally interfering in its internal affairs (a respect that Netanyahu has often neglected when meddling in American politics over the years) while explaining his concern — shared by many of the key of Israel. 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 remain silent.
Have no illusions: Many Israelis support Netanyahu’s effort, but ballots — and the relative size of demonstrations — indicates that a clear majority opposes it. Netanyahu’s entire coalition cabinet lost public support in the last polls.
But here is the point: The size and tenacity of the protest movement in Israel sends a clear signal that the revision pushed by the government will probably never have internal legitimacy and therefore also external legitimacy. That train left the station.
If Netanyahu just goes through with it, it will inevitably jeopardize the domestic and international stature of Israel’s Supreme Court and, by extension, Israel’s democracy. We are talking about the foundations of the shared values that underpin the American-Israeli alliance.
Indeed, every Israeli leader should consider this line from Biden: The protest movement demonstrates “the vitality of Israeli democracy, which must remain the core of our bilateral relationship.”
When Biden said that to me, I can tell you that he was speaking from his head and his heart. He basically begs Netanyahu and his supporters to understand: If we are not seen to share that democratic value, it will be difficult to continue the special relationship that Israel and America have enjoyed for the past 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 achievements in science and technology and the arts — and its enduring democracy, however corroded. through its continued occupation of the Palestinian territories – resonates authentically with him.
That is, in my opinion, 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 anti-Israel and, even more ridiculously, anti-Semitic.
A 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.