Israeli Sovereignty and American Intervention

by April 2023
Demonstrators in Tel Aviv, Israel show support for US President Biden, for not inviting Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to the White House, March 30, 2023. Photo credit: REUTERS

The streets are seething. Police have clashed with demonstrators and there have been not only arrests but some violence. Hundreds of thousands and likely millions have protested proposed government actions. Unions have called for nationwide strikes. Government reactions have elicited even more fierce opposition.

Israel? No, France. Most recently, protests have intensified when the government completely bypassed the parliament to push through by decree a broadly unpopular provision raising the retirement age. In response, President Biden has said exactly nothing, and other figures in his administration–the U.S. Ambassador to France, the Secretary of State, the Vice President—have been equally quiet.

“We remain deeply concerned by recent developments, which further underscore the need in our view for compromise,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on March 27. Why was he talking about Jerusalem and not Paris? 

What explains the Biden administration’s intervention in Israeli politics, where in fact the officials mentioned above (ambassador, secretary of state, vice president, president) have all jumped in? It cannot be the facts of the situation. In Israel, the government has in fact done nothing yet about judicial reform, while in France President Macron simply blasted through the protests to have his way.

There are four explanations, all political and all worrying.

First, this dispute in Israel is in significant ways a contest between conservative, more religious parts of the society and leftist, more secular ones. That is obviously a generalization but it isn’t an accident that the chairman of the Knesset law and judiciary committee pushing the reforms is from the Religious Zionist Party. And neither is it an accident nor a surprise that a Democratic Party administration in the United States should be backing the secular left over the religious right. That is its position, and in some ways its raison d’être. 

Nor is it an accident or a surprise that the main media supporters of the Biden administration, such as CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times share those views and indeed push the administration into voicing them. Writers like Thomas Friedman have been vicious in attacking the governing coalition in Israel, and they have influence with administration officials. 

One aspect of the judicial reform struggle in Israel is a kulturkampf between “advanced” sectors of society and those they see as backward. In American terms, Hillary Clinton in 2016 insulted the “deplorables” and Barack Obama talked in 2008 of people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”  Rightly or wrongly, Americans on the left see the Israeli debate in similar terms and they know whose side they are on. It was predictable then that on March 9th, 92 Democrats in the House of Representatives wrote to Biden to demand that he “use all diplomatic tools available to prevent Israel’s government from further damaging the nation’s democratic institutions….”

Second and similarly, it should not be surprising that a Democratic Party administration will criticize what it views as right-wing governments and leaders in other countries. There has been plenty of official criticism of the Polish and Hungarian governments, and criticism from the liberal media of Prime Minister Modi in India. Meloni’s victory in Italy was received on the American left as a dangerous move back to fascism, but leftist rulers like Petro in Colombia or Lula in Brazil don’t evoke any alarm. Boris Johnson never got very sweet treatment from Biden, because he was on the right. As Politico put it, “Johnson was unlikely to find much comfort from Biden. The two men in the past had differences over both style and substance.”

US President Joe Biden speaks with reporters before boarding Air Force One to return to Washington from North Carolina, US, on March 28, 2023. Photo credit: REUTERS

We’ve seen this movie before when it comes to Democrats and Israel. Jimmy Carter despised Menachem Begin. In 1996 and 1999, the Clinton administration intervened in Israeli elections to support Shimon Peres against Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Asked in a 2018 interview whether it would be fair to say that he tried to help Peres win the election, Clinton replied: “That would be fair to say. I tried to do it in a way that didn’t overtly involve me.” In 2015, Foreign Policy magazine carried a story with the headline “Obama is Pursuing Regime Change in Israel.” That time, it was an effort to back Labor Party leader (and now president) Isaac Herzog against Netanyahu, and the article concluded that “Both Obama and Kerry would love to see Netanyahu out and Labor’s duo of Herzog and Tzipi Livni in. And they’re doing everything they reasonably can — short of running campaign ads — to bring that about.” 

And that time, just like now, Netanyahu was denied a White House meeting while top officials met with Herzog. As The New York Times said on March 29 of Biden and Netanyahu, “There is no love lost between the two leaders….” When asked whether Mr. Netanyahu would be invited to the White House, the president replied sharply “No. Not in the near term.”

Third, the issue of the supreme court is especially neuralgic for Americans on the left. The US Supreme Court has long been a liberal icon in the United States, idealized by Democrats for decades because it was controlled by an activist majority. Democrats applauded decisions on such matters as abortion and gay marriage that gave victories the Democrats could not win at the ballot box. More recently, Democrats have attacked the Court because it now has a conservative majority. Democrats see that Israel’s supreme court is activist and hands down “progressive” rulings, so they believe it must be supported. They sympathize entirely with the political forces that wish to protect Israel’s court from Israel’s voters and elected leaders. They are unconcerned that the Israeli supreme court can largely select its own members or at least veto those who are not members of the elite club. 

Finally, it must be said that American intervention has been invited by many Israelis fighting against the judicial reform. They’ve invited it through their rhetoric, by saying that this American friend and ally was on the verge of fascism. 

When President Isaac Herzog proposed a compromise, Ehud Barak infamously tweeted the old photo of Hitler and Neville Chamberlain with Herzog’s face substituted for Chamberlain’s. Ehud Olmert and a thousand other commentators used the word “coup” while yet more spoke of a “blitzkrieg.” Opposition leader Yair Lapid spoke of a “journey towards destroying Israeli democracy.” All of them spoke in English to US audiences, and in the demonstrations in Israel many signs were in English as well—all to appeal for the intervention of American Jews and the United States government. In private, numerous Israeli leaders and commentators explicitly asked for American intervention, arguing that Israelis had reached a dead end and had to be saved from themselves. Such conversations, and the picture of an Israel about to collapse into a dark tyranny, no doubt had their effect on Biden and his administration.

And those invitations fell on fertile American ground for all the reasons mentioned previously. Take for example the words of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, long-time leader of the Reform movement. Writing in Haaretz on March 2, he said “I have never once lobbied against an Israeli government. But Netanyahu’s judicial coup, his offensive against democracy, must be stopped. That means U.S. Jews must do the unthinkable, and urge a strong American hand with Israel.” 

This is a dangerous precedent. When Clinton intervened (twice) in Israeli elections he tried to hide his actions; he knew they were indefensible if exposed. Now there’s a new model that justifies and indeed idealizes foreign interference—demanding that the United States intervene in domestic matters in Israel in a way that never happens with respect to any other democracy. 

Those on the left—whether Israelis opposing the judicial reforms or Americans wanting to throw Washington’s weight around because their side didn’t win Israel’s most recent elections—should realize first that two can play the same game. It isn’t hard to imagine a conservative Republican president in the United States and a left-of-center prime minister in Israel serving at the same time. Will conservative Americans henceforth demand intervention in Knesset votes, or in Israeli elections, because some proposed policies are strongly opposed on the right? 

Judicial reform is about the most “domestic” or “internal” issue one can imagine. If outside interference is legitimate on that issue, are there any issues where foreign intervention, whether by diaspora communities or foreign governments, should be considered illegitimate? 

As Israel approaches its 75th birthday in just a few weeks, one must wonder what those who cultivate American interference think of the Zionist project. Are Israelis to be “masters of their own fate” (in Ben Gurion’s words) except when election losers can coax the United States government to jump into the fray? Is Israel to have a kind of compromised sovereignty that is subject to American whims? 

The current struggle over judicial reform has many aspects. The decision of those who oppose reform to invite, indeed to plead for, American intervention in this complex and fateful internal contest damages Israeli sovereignty and self-government.  One can only hope that when the dust has settled, Israelis will—whatever their views on the supreme court—come to agree that the appeal to foreign intervention over the Jewish State’s internal political structures was a damaging mistake and a dangerous precedent.

Elliott Abrams
Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and chairman of the Tikvah Fund. He served as a deputy national security advisor to President George W. Bush from 2005-2009, among other senior US government positions.
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