The Widening Breach, in Israel and in Israel-US Relations

Image of Israeli flag.

Image by Cole Keister.

The Growing Divide

Israel’s Knesset, or parliament, has passed the first law to scale back judicial independence, in line with the ambitions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s largely far-right, ultra-religious cabinet. The law will sharply limit the power of courts to rule on matters that “reasonably” require judicial intervention, giving his government far greater power to push its agenda, which includes opening Palestinian land to thousands of Israeli settlers.

Corruption charges against Netanyahu himself are likely to be dropped. Large-scale popular protests are entering their fifth month, joined by a wide swath of Israeli society that includes military reservists, doctors, women’s groups, and labor unions. A general strike is possible.

Pres. Biden offered rare criticism of Israel’s government while the new law was being debated in Tel Aviv, saying it contains some “of the most extreme members” he’s seen in Israel. He said that cabinet ministers who support Israelis settling “anywhere they want” in the West Bank are “part of the problem” in the conflict with Palestinians.

Welcoming Israel’s president Isaac Herzog to the White House, Biden still offered the usual “ironclad” and “unbreakable” US support of Israel. Herzog, who has been very critical of the judicial reforms, was careful not to go deeply into the crisis at home. All he would allow is that Israel always finds an “amicable consensus,” and that he was working “in order to find solutions and exit out of this crisis properly.”

Shortly after the meeting with Herzog, Biden finally extended an invitation to Netanyahu to visit Washington. It was probably a grudging invitation, reflecting growing unease in the White House and among liberals with politics in Tel Aviv.

“Given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now.” The Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in a scathing critique of the Netanyahu government’s willingness to dispense with democratic norms, cited this comment by David Horovitz, the founding editor of Times of Israel:

“Only a government bent on doing the unreasonable would move to ensure that the justices — the only brake on majority power in a country with no constitution and no enshrined, unbreachable defense of freedom of religion, freedom of speech and other basic rights — cannot review the reasonableness of its policies.”

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barack put the matter even more strongly, saying the new law would “degrade Israel into a corrupt and racist dictatorship that will crumble society, isolate the country.”

The End of Shared Values?

Those comments only reinforce Biden’s convictions that Israel, long upheld in Washington as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” has gone astray. Just a day before the Knesset vote, Biden said: “it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this — the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus.”

An Israeli writer offered that “the Biden administration views the right’s judicial overhaul as an effort to eliminate Israeli democracy from within — and as such, erasing what it considers the central foundation of the relationship between the two countries.” The notion of shared values is being shattered.

A further sign of American liberals’ disenchantment is Nicholas Kristof’s July 22 op-ed in the New York Times. He raised the once-taboo subject of ending US aid to Israel. Kristof cited several people whose support for Israel is unimpeachable but who now believe US aid needs to be reexamined for at least two reasons: At $3.8 billion annually to an economically advanced country, aid seems unnecessary and would be better used elsewhere; and the military component essentially subsidizes US weapons manufacturers, which is Israel’s required supplier.

Aid makes the US-Israel relationship “unhealthy,” Kristof wrote, while affording no leverage over Netanyahu’s decision making. He quotes Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel: “Aid provides the U.S. with no leverage or influence over Israeli decisions to use force; because we sit by quietly while Israel pursues policies we oppose, we are seen as ‘enablers’ of Israel’s occupation.”

Another Illiberal Democracy?

In short, Israel’s right-wing government is driving a wedge between Israel and the US, at the expense of Israelis’ as well as Palestinians’ real security. Voices of compromise within the government, such as Herzog and defense minister Yoav Gallant, had called for a watered-down judicial bill and a lengthy pause before a vote.

But to no avail; Netanyahu put himself at the service of morally bankrupt and politically extremist cabinet members with radical goals: the removal of all Palestinians from Israel, the elimination of checks on the prime minister’s authority, resistance to US pressure, and declaration of Israel as a Jewish state.

Achieving those aims would move Israel from the democratic to the authoritarian column, in a class with Erdogan’s Turkey, Modi’s India, and el-Sisi’s Egypt. Netanyahu has reinforced such comparisons by using the same victim language other far-right leaders have used: witch hunt, deep state, “judicial coup.”

Those leaders—I’m thinking of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and of course Donald Trump—were deposed. If Netanyahu’s blind ambition means another illiberal democracy, will the Biden administration redefine relations with Israel, ending its special status, a move that previous liberal administrations have been desperate to avoid?

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.