I woke up on Saturday morning to read the news out of Israel that at least 50,000 Israelis had just staged a new protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to deprive the Israeli Supreme Court of its independence and instead submit it to control of the premier — this at a time when Netanyahu himself faces criminal charges of corruption. And I asked myself a simple question: “What does President Joe Biden think of this?”
Biden is as pro-Israel at heart as any president I’ve written about. And she has a long relationship with Netanyahu, characterized by mutual respect. For that very reason, I can say that anything Biden has to say about Israel is motivated by real concern. It is the concern that the radical overhaul of the Israeli justice system that Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious coalition is trying to push through the Knesset could seriously damage Israel’s democracy, hence its close relations with America and with democracies around the world.
This is the statement Biden sent me Saturday afternoon, when I asked for a comment: “The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary. fundamental changes is really important to ensure people buy into them so they can be sustained.”
It is the first time that I can remember that an American president has ever expressed his opinion on an internal Israeli question concerning the very character of the country’s democracy. And though it’s couched in just 46 words, Biden’s statement comes at a crucial moment in this highly divisive Israeli domestic thread, and could well energize and amplify already significant opposition to what Netanyahu’s opponents are characterizing as a legal coup that will include Israel in the group of countries that have been moving away from democracy, such as Turkey, Hungary and Poland.
See why Biden’s 46 words matter so much. First, they place him unequivocally in favor of the approach called for by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog — and unequivocally in favor of retaining the independence of the highly respected Israeli judiciary. The Israeli Presidency is a largely symbolic post, but one that carries moral authority. Herzog is a good man who has been working hard to avoid what he fears could be the most serious civil dispute ever seen in Israeli society if such a massive change to the justice system is forcibly passed, inspired in part by an Israeli think tank from extreme right.
Herzog implored Netanyahu and his coalition to step back and organize some kind of broad national dialogue that can patiently study what kind of judicial changes might be healthy for the country, but do so in conjunction with legal scholars, in a non-partisan way and in a that preserves the integrity of the judicial system that has existed since the founding of Israel.
Sadly, Netanyahu rejected the Israeli president’s proposal, prompting Herzog to declare regarding the so-called judicial reform on January 24: “Israel’s democratic foundations, including the justice system, human rights and freedoms, are sacred. protect them and protect the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Sudden and sweeping reform, when effected quickly and without negotiation, arouses opposition and deep fears among the public.” He added: “The absence of dialogue is tearing us apart from within. I’m telling you loud and clear: this powder keg is about to explode. This is an emergency.”
With Biden’s 46 words, Netanyahu now finds himself in a situation where, if he goes ahead with his intentions, he will not only be trampling over the president of Israel — he will be trampling over the president of the United States as well. It’s no small thing. I also suspect that Biden taking a measured but unmistakable stance on this issue will encourage other Western Democratic leaders, business people, US senators and representatives to do the same, and that will energize the opposition.
The second reason Biden’s words matter is the timing, which couldn’t be more important. As The Times of Israel reported on Saturday, the first reading of some of the most controversial aspects of Netanyahu’s judicial reform “is scheduled for this Monday; a bill needs to pass in three readings to become law, and the coalition has already indicated that it wants to speed up passage of the legislation through the Knesset by April.”
Opposition leaders called a national workers’ strike on Monday and a mass protest outside the Knesset to coincide with the first rounds of voting on the legislation. You can bet that not a few Israeli protesters will be quoting Biden’s words when they take to the streets.
Third, Biden has positioned himself and America unequivocally on the side of the Israeli majority who are against Netanyahu simply passing his “reform” by force, in what increasingly looks like a judicial putsch.
Finally, what Biden has done will add credibility to America’s voice in supporting democracy globally. His position asserts that America does not just speak out when China stifles democracy in Hong Kong. We speak out when we see democracy threatened anywhere. America has frequently criticized Israel’s human rights abuses in its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. But no American president in my memory has ever publicly spoken out against proposed changes to the democratic character of the Israeli state — that’s because none ever had to, until a few weeks ago.
If Biden’s message isn’t clear to Netanyahu’s coalition, I’ll try to make it as simple as I can: The US has supported Israel since its founding, militarily, diplomatically and with billions of dollars in assistance, but not because Israel shares our interests. This doesn’t always happen. Israel remains neutral between Ukraine and Russia, is indifferent to human rights violations in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and Israeli companies sometimes sell defense technology to China, which is very worrying for the Pentagon. We have been so supportive of Israel since its founding because we believe that Israel shares our values.
So do defenders of Israel in America. Whenever America criticizes Israel for its brutal treatment of Palestinians, Israel and its supporters in America are the first to remind the White House that Israel is different — not because it holds elections (Egypt and Syria did too), but because Israel, they they argue, it is the only democracy in the Middle East with strong democratic institutions, as well as being the only country in the region with an independent judiciary and a free press. Therefore, Israel often tells us, if it practices some human rights abuses against Palestinians in the context of an ongoing war, we should let it go.
With his 46 words, Biden is telling Israel that our relationship was never really based on shared interests, but on our shared values. That’s why it lasts so long, even when we disagree about our interests. With his simple statement, Biden is signaling that no matter what else Israel does, it must not abandon these shared values. Otherwise, we are in a whole new world.
Translated by Clara Allain
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