Whenever people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I’m an English to English translator. I try to take complex subjects and make them understandable, first to myself and then to readers – and that’s what I want to do here regarding three interrelated questions: Why is Israel’s cabinet trying to crush the country’s Supreme Court? Why did President Biden tell CNN that “this is one of the most extreme” Israeli cabinets that he ever saw? And why did the US ambassador to Israel only say that the US is working to prevent Israel”going off the rails“?
The short answer to all three questions is that the Biden team sees the far-right Israeli government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, as engaging in unprecedented radical behavior — under the cloak of judicial “reform” — that undermines our shared interests with Israel, our . shared values and the vitally important shared fiction about the status of the West Bank that kept hope of peace there just barely alive.
If you want to get just a glimpse of the tension between the United States and this extremist-led Israeli cabinet, consider that hours after Biden mentioned to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria how “extreme” some of Netanyahu’s cabinet members were, one of the most extreme. of them all, the minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, told Biden to pull out – that “Israel is no longer another star on the American flag.”
OK, huh? According to 2020 Congressional Research Service a report, Israel has received the most US foreign aid of any country in the world since World War II, at $146 billion, not adjusted for inflation. That is quite an allowance and which perhaps deserved a little more respect for the American president of Ben-Gvir, who in his youth was convicted for inciting racism against Arabs.
There is a sense of shock today among American diplomats who have dealt with Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and a man of considerable intellectual and political talent. They just find it hard to believe that Bibi would allow himself to be led by the nose of people like Ben-Gvir, would be willing to risk Israel’s relations with America and with global investors and WILLING TO RISK CIVIL WAR IN ISRAEL. only to stay in power with a group of ciphers and ultra-nationalists.
But it is what it is – and it’s ugly. Tens of thousands of Israeli democracy defenders blocked roads and highways and besieged the Tel Aviv airport on Tuesday to make clear to Netanyahu that if he thinks he can take out Israeli democracy just like this, he is sorely mistaken.
The collapse of the common values of the United States and Israel begins with the fact that Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, which took office from the narrowest of margins, decided to behave as if it had won a landslide and immediately moved to change the long-established balance of power between the government and the Supreme Court, the only independent check on political power.
This week, Netanyahu and his colleagues began pushing through the Knesset a bill that would prevent the Israeli judiciary from using the long-established reasonableness doctrine in Israeli law, which gives the Supreme Court the right to review and overturn decisions deemed reckless or unethical made by the Israeli law cabinet, ministers and some other elected officials.
As David Horovitz, the founding editor of the centrist Times of Israel, wrote Monday, “Only a government bent on doing the unreasonable would move to ensure that the judges — the only check on majority power in a country without a constitution and without a sanctified, unbreakable defense of freedom of religion, freedom of speech and other basic rights — cannot review the reasonableness of its policies.”
Such a huge change to Israel’s widely respected judicial system, which has led to the emergence of a remarkable start-up economy, is something that should only be done after study by non-partisan experts and with broad national consensus. That’s how real democracies do these things, but none of that happened in Netanyahu’s case. It points out that this whole farce has nothing to do with judicial “reform” and everything to do with a naked power grab by every segment of Netanyahu’s coalition.
The Jewish settlers want the Supreme Court out of the way so they can create settlements all over the West Bank and easily confiscate Palestinian lands. The ultra-Orthodox want the Supreme Court out of the way so that no one can tell their sons to serve in the Israeli army or tell their schools to teach English, math, science and democratic values. And Netanyahu wants the court out of the way so he can appoint whatever political hacks he wants to key jobs.
On Monday, the judicial review bill received the first of three readings it must pass, which Netanyahu’s cabinet says it wants to do by the time the Knesset adjourns for the summer on July 31. Can you imagine the United States changing its Constitution – in just a few months – without a serious national debate or expert witnesses or an attempt by the national leader to forge a consensus?
If the hundreds of thousands of Israeli democracy defenders who took to the streets every Saturday for more than half a year cannot stop the Netanyahu senior from passing this bill, it will, like former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. wrote the other day in Haaretz, “degrade Israel to a corrupt and racist dictatorship that will collapse society, isolate the country” and end “the democratic chapter” of Israel’s history.
Let me give a very concrete example. Under the original government formation agreement that Netanyahu signed with his right-wing coalition partners last year, he appointed Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, to serve first as interior and health minister and then, after two years, finance minister, in rotation with the Religious Zionist Party leader, Bezalel Smotrich.
Deri was tried three times for financial crimes that sent him to prison – including tax evasion and accepting bribes. The Israeli Supreme Court, by a vote of 10 to 1, told Netanyahu last January that his appointment of a convicted tax cheat and briber as a government minister was “extremely unreasonable” and in “a serious contradiction to the basic principles that should guide the prime minister when he appoints ministers.”
Netanyahu, himself convicted of corruption, wants to castrate the Supreme Court so that it cannot prevent him from appointing this tax cheat as his finance minister to control, among other things, the contributions of Israeli and American taxpayers to the Israeli treasury. How’s that for judicial “reform”?
Now let’s move on to common interests. One of the most important Israeli and American common interests was the shared fiction that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was only temporary and one day there could be a two-state solution with the 2.9 million Palestinians there. Therefore, the United States need not worry about the now more than 500,000 Israeli settlers there. Some will remain when there is a two-state agreement; others will go.
Because of this common fiction, the United States has almost always defended Israel in the UN and the International Court in The Hague against various resolutions or judgments that it does not occupy the West Bank temporarily but actually annexes it permanently.
This Israeli government is now doing its best to destroy that time-buying fiction. Since taking the oath of power in December, Netanyahu has approved more than 7,000 new housing units, most of them deep in the West Bank. The government also changed the law to enable illegal settlers to return to four settlements from which the Israeli army had expelled them — breaking a promise to President George W. Bush not to do so.
Smotrich, Netanyahu’s finance minister, stated in March that there was “no such thing as Palestinians because there is no such thing as the Palestinian people.” Smotrich’s party opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state and favors annexation.
The constant destruction of this joint fiction by Netanyahu now presents a real problem for other common interests of the United States and Israel: It threatens the stability of Jordan, a vital interest of the United States and Israel. It forces the Arab states that joined Israel in the Abraham Accords to take a step back. It gives the Saudis real pause to move forward with normalization with such an unpredictable Israeli regime.
And it forces America to choose. If the Netanyahu government behaves as if the West Bank is Israel, then the US will have to insist on two things. First, that the visa waiver agreement Israel wants from the United States — which would allow Israeli citizens to enter the United States without a visa, including the more than 500,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank — should apply to all of the 2.9 million Palestinians from West Bank. too. Why not? Why should an Israeli settler in the West Bank city of Hebron be granted visa-free entry into the United States and a Palestinian from Hebron should not, especially when this Israeli government effectively says that Hebron belongs to Israel?
Why should the United States continue to defend the idea in the UN and the International Court of Justice that Israel only temporarily occupies the West Bank – and therefore does not practice some form of apartheid there – when this Israeli government seems openly determined to annex the West? Bank and gave two of the most active annexationists, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, extensive security and financial powers over settlements in that region?
Israel’s very decent, moderate president, Isaac Herzog, who has begged Netanyahu’s coalition to back off from forcing any changes in the judiciary and do so only by national consensus, will meet with Biden in Washington next week. It is Biden’s way of signaling that his problem is not with the Israeli people but with Bibi’s extremist cabinet.
But I have no doubt that the American president will arm the Israeli president with the message – out of sadness, not out of anger – that when the interests and values of the American government and the Israeli government diverge so much, a reassessment of the relationship is inevitable. .
I am not talking about a reassessment of our military and intelligence cooperation with Israel, which remains strong and vital. I am talking about our basic diplomatic approach to Israel, which shamelessly locks in a one-state solution: only a Jewish state, with the fate and rights of the Palestinians. TBD.
Such a reassessment based on American interests and values would be a kind of tough love for Israel but a true necessity before it truly destroys. That Biden is ready to face Netanyahu before the 2024 US election suggests that our president believes he has the support not only of most Americans for this, but of most American Jews and even most Israeli Jews.
He is right on all three points.