American Policy and the Israeli Domestic Debate

by April 2023
Photo credit: Freepik

On March 29, a few hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressed pause on his government’s plan to overhaul Israel’s judiciary, US President Joe Biden delivered a warning to his long-time friend. “Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned,” Biden said, masking his deep frustration with measured understatement. “I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road.”

Despite indications from US Ambassador Tom Nides to Israel Radio that the pause might unlock a highly-coveted invitation to DC for the prime minister, the White House made clear that – for now – no such visit was in the offing. 

Then on March 30, several hundred thousand Israelis took to the streets to make clear that, much like President Biden, they do not want Israel to go down this road. Reports indicate that the President’s show of support for Israeli democracy was well received on the streets, with American flags dotting the sea of blue-and-white flags across Israel.

The United States and Israel do have a special relationship, and what the leaders of each country say about the other’s policy choices matters.

The response on the political right to President Biden’s comments, however, was not quite as warm. The Prime Minister himself rebuked Biden for his comments, saying, “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”

Others on the Israeli right were less restrained. Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said Biden needs to understand that “Israel is no longer a star on the US flag. We are a democracy, and I expect the US President to understand that.” Another minister tweeted that Biden had “fallen victim to fake news.” A Likud MK was quoted as saying, “There is no way the US will interfere in Israel’s internal matters,” adding that the US system of picking judges is “improper” and that “we are probably a bit more democratic than the system there.”

The outrage on the right over Biden’s measured comments on an Israeli policy debate is ironic, given the direct interference in American politics and policy engaged in by Prime Minister Netanyahu when he spoke to a joint session of Congress in 2015 to oppose then-President Obama’s agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.

The United States and Israel do have a special relationship, and what the leaders of each country say about the other’s policy choices matters. That special relationship is a staple of political speeches by American political candidates of all political persuasions to Jewish and other pro-Israel audiences, and the relationship is regularly framed as grounded in the two nations’ shared interests and values.  

It is Israel’s status as the only democracy in the Middle East that rests at the heart of that relationship. Israel’s security and diplomatic establishments understand that the country’s relationship with the United States is a vital cornerstone of its national security. The US provides not just extraordinary levels of financial support, but irreplaceable diplomatic protection in the international arena and near-blanket promotion of Israeli interests in every facet of international engagement.

Israel’s leaders expect the US to “have Israel’s back,” as Ambassador Nides recently framed it,  in meeting the threat posed by Iran. They are counting on the US to do what it takes to advance the normalization of Israel’s ties with its neighbors through the Abraham Accords. 

Given the extraordinary benefits, support and assistance that the United States provides Israel, it should be hard to argue that the US has no right to express – or has no interest of its own in expressing – its opinions on the crucial decisions, including domestic policy decisions, that Israel is taking regarding the direction the country is going to head.

The question of legitimacy of American commentary on Israeli domestic policy goes to the heart of a debate that is now fully engaged in the United States: What does it mean to be pro-Israel?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. Photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The terms of the relationship between the two countries – a bond regularly termed “unbreakable” by American politicians – are in fact showing signs of evolving. The Israel of the 21st century is a global economic and military power, as opposed to the Israel that Americans came to know in the last century as a David in a rough neighborhood surrounded by Goliaths.

A new generation of Americans – in the streets and in the halls of power – is asking tough questions about a relationship that has traditionally permitted few. Israel and its strongest supporters have come to expect unparalleled levels of US financial assistance to be provided with little to no oversight, transparency or accountability. They count on American support for Israel at the UN and in other bodies to provide near-blanket immunity from accountability for its actions under international law.

But the era of unquestioning support for Israel and its every action is coming to an end. The early 21st century is being defined by the contest between liberal democracy and the rules-based international order on the one hand, and ethnonationalist autocracies bent on undermining the norms and standards of the post-World War II order on the other.

Israel should understand that its policy choices in the coming months and years will have enormous impact on how Americans regard its place in this epic struggle. Will Israel firmly align itself with the liberal democratic order of which the United States is the global leader?  Or will it choose to erode its democracy and find its place in the camp of countries lacking a commitment to the rule of law, checks and balances, and protection of individual and minority rights? 

Demonstration against the Israeli government’s judicial reform, in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 1 2023. Photo credit: REUTERS/Ilan Rosenberg.

Israel’s new government isn’t only looking to lead a revolution regarding the nature of its legal system, a revolution to change the structures and framework of its civilian government. It is also intent on radically reshaping the nature of its relationship to the land and to the Palestinian people who have been under military occupation since 1967.

Notably, the focus of the demonstrations on Israel’s streets is only on the first of these two revolutions.  Yet the tension between the American and Israeli governments may well be greater over the second.  

Steps being taken by the new government to shift its civil administration of West Bank territories away from the military and to reshape the legal architecture of the occupation regime may lead to even greater friction. Less noticed amid the outcry over the judicial appointments legislation was the Knesset’s repeal of parts of the 2005 Disengagement Law affecting Jewish settlement in the northern West Bank.

It was this action – and not something related to the judiciary – that led to the Israeli Ambassador to the United States being summoned for a rebuke by the Deputy Secretary of State, because this decision constituted an explicit breach of written commitments made by Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to then President George W. Bush.

If the government of Israel proceeds with these twin revolutions, to forge what many term an “illiberal democracy” within Israel and to annex de facto the West Bank without equal rights for the Palestinians who live there, the consequences for the US-Israel relationship will be dire.

When Joe Biden expresses concern publicly over the choices Israel is making, he delivers the kind of warning that only true friends and family can deliver as loved ones make choices that will define their futures.  

What President Biden has done is to model what it looks like to be pro-Israel in the 21st century. Israel’s political leaders would do well to heed his warnings and change course, rather than critique him for the heartfelt concern rooted in his deep affection for the state of Israel and its people.  

Jeremy Ben-Ami
Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president and founder of J Street, a liberal American advocacy group which promotes American leadership to end the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.
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