Whenever people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them that I’m a translator from English to English. I try to take complex subjects and make them understandable, first to myself and then to readers — and that is 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 he’d ever seen? And why did the U.S. ambassador to Israel just say that America is working to prevent Israel from “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, engaged in unprecedented radical behavior — under the cloak of judicial “reform” — that is undermining our shared interests with Israel, our shared values and the vitally important shared fiction about the status of the West Bank that has kept peace hopes there just barely alive.
If you want to get just a whiff of the tension between the U.S. and this Israeli cabinet, spearheaded by extremists, consider that hours after Biden mentioned to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria just how “extreme” some of Netanyahu’s cabinet members were, one of the most extreme of them all, the national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, told Biden to butt out — that “Israel is no longer another star in the American flag.”
Nice, eh? According to a 2020 Congressional Research Service report, Israel has received the most U.S. foreign assistance of any country in the world since World War II, at $146 billion, not adjusted for inflation. That’s quite an allowance and one that might have merited a little more respect for the U.S. president from Ben-Gvir, who in his youth was convicted of inciting racism against Arabs.
There is a sense of shock today among U.S. diplomats who’ve been dealing with Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and a man of considerable smarts and political talent. They just find it hard to believe that Bibi would allow himself to be led around by the nose by people like Ben-Gvir, would be ready to risk Israel’s relations with America and with global investors and WOULD BE READY TO RISK A CIVIL WAR IN ISRAEL just to stay in power with a group of ciphers and ultranationalists.
But it is what it is — and it’s ugly. Tens of thousands of Israeli democracy protectors blocked roads and highways and besieged the Tel Aviv airport on Tuesday to make clear to Netanyahu that if he thinks he can snuff out Israel’s democracy just like that, he’s badly mistaken.
The U.S.-Israel breakdown in shared values starts with the fact that Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, which squeaked into office by 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 ramming through the Knesset a bill that would prevent the Israeli judiciary from using the long-established reasonableness doctrine in Israeli law that gives the Supreme Court the right to review and reverse decisions deemed reckless or unethical made by the cabinet, government ministers and certain 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 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.”
Such a huge change to Israel’s widely respected judicial system, which has guided the emergence of a remarkable start-up economy, is something that should be done only after study by nonpartisan experts and with a broad national consensus. That is how real democracies do these things, but there has been none of that in Netanyahu’s case. It underscores that this whole farce has nothing to do with judicial “reform” and everything to do with a naked power grab by each segment of Netanyahu’s coalition.
The Jewish settlers want the Supreme Court out of the way so they can create settlements all across the West Bank and easily confiscate Palestinian lands. The ultra-Orthodox want the Supreme Court out of the way so no one can tell their sons that they have to serve in the Israeli military or tell their schools that they have 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 overhaul bill received the first of the three readings it needs to pass, which Netanyahu’s cabinet says it wants done by the time the Knesset recesses for the summer on July 31. Can you imagine the U.S. amending its Constitution — in just a few months — with no serious national debate or expert witnesses or attempt by the national leader to forge a consensus?
If the hundreds of thousands of Israeli democracy defenders, who have taken to the streets every Saturday for over half a year, can’t stop the Netanyahu juggernaut from slamming this bill through, it will, as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrote the other day in Haaretz, “degrade Israel into a corrupt and racist dictatorship that will crumble 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 deal 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, in two years, finance minister, in rotation with the Religious Zionist Party leader, Bezalel Smotrich.
Deri has been convicted three times of financial crimes that have 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 cheater and bribe taker as a government minister was “extremely unreasonable” and in “serious contradiction to the basic principles that should guide the prime minister when he appoints ministers.”
Netanyahu, who is himself on trial for corruption, wants to neuter the Supreme Court so it can’t stop him from appointing this tax cheater as his finance minister to oversee, among other things, Israeli and U.S. taxpayers’ contributions to the Israeli treasury. How’s that for judicial “reform”?
Now let’s move to shared interests. One of the most important Israeli and American shared 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 U.S. doesn’t need to worry about the now more than 500,000 Israeli settlers there. Some will stay when there is a two-state deal; others will go.
Because of that shared fiction, the U.S. has almost always defended Israel in the U.N. and the International Court of Justice in The Hague against various resolutions or judgments that it was not occupying the West Bank temporarily but actually annexing it permanently.
This Israeli government is now doing its best to destroy that time-buying fiction. Since being sworn into power in December, Netanyahu has approved more than 7,000 new housing units, most of them deep in the West Bank. The government also amended a law to enable wildcat settlers to return to four settlements from which the Israeli Army had evicted them — breaking a pledge to President George W. Bush not to do so.
Smotrich, Netanyahu’s finance minister, declared in March that there was “no such thing as Palestinians because there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people.” Smotrich’s party opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state and favors annexation.
Netanyahu’s steady destruction of this shared fiction is now posing a real problem for other U.S. and Israeli shared interests: It threatens the stability of Jordan, a vital U.S. and Israeli interest. It is driving the Arab states that joined with Israel in the Abraham Accords to take a step back. It is giving the Saudis real pause about moving ahead with normalization with such an unpredictable Israeli regime.
And it is forcing the U.S. to choose. If Netanyahu’s government is going to behave as if the West Bank is Israel, then the U.S. will have to insist on two things. First, that the visa waiver agreement Israel wants from the U.S. — which would allow Israeli citizens entry into the U.S. without a visa, including the more than 500,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank — should apply to all 2.9 million Palestinians of the West Bank as well. Why not? Why should an Israeli settler in the West Bank town of Hebron get visa-free entry into the U.S. and a Palestinian from Hebron should not, especially when this Israeli government is effectively saying Hebron belongs to Israel?
Why should the U.S. continue to defend the idea in the U.N. and the International Court that Israel is just temporarily occupying the West Bank — and therefore is not practicing some form of apartheid there — when this Israeli government appears to be openly hellbent on annexing the West Bank and has given 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 been pleading with Netanyahu’s coalition to step back from forcing any changes in the judiciary and to do so only by national consensus, will be meeting 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 U.S. president will arm the Israeli president with the message — out of sorrow, not anger — that when the interests and values of a U.S. government and an Israeli government diverge this 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 an Israel that is unabashedly locking in a one-state solution: a Jewish state only, with the fate and rights of the Palestinians T.B.D.
Such a reassessment based on U.S. interests and values would be some tough love for Israel but a real necessity before it truly does go off the rails. That Biden is prepared to get in Netanyahu’s face before America’s 2024 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 counts.
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Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist. He joined the paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award. @tomfriedman • Facebook
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