The Israel-U.S. Relationship in Face of the Judicial Controversy

The Israel-U.S. Relationship in Face of the Judicial Controversy

Israel has set clear boundaries for the Biden administration, demonstrating that foreign interference with Israeli internal affairs will not be accepted in the future.

In recent weeks Israel has been facing its most severe internal political and judicial crisis in recent times. At the center of it stands a controversial judicial reform aiming to weaken the power of the supreme court in the national decisionmaking process.

The country’s supreme court is regarded by many Israelis as a beacon of liberal human rights. Yet others see it as an undemocratic institution with too much power. The judicial reform put forward by the government included plans to curtail the power of the judiciary in several ways, including:

  1. Merely requiring a simple majority in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) to overrule court decisions;
  2. Increasing the government representation on the committee which appoints the supreme court judges;
  3. Canceling the legal requirements that ministers have to obey the advice of legal advisers, guided by the attorney general.

The reaction to the proposed reform has been unprecedented in Israeli history: massive protests took place across the country, with as many as 200,000 people flooding the streets in Tel Aviv and over 500,000 countrywide; a countrywide strike was called out by Israel’s Histadrut trade union; and as many as 750 reservists of the Israeli Defense Forces stopped answering their call-ups for training. Reserve and military officers from Israel’s Military Intelligence Special Operations Division warned in an open letter the “legislation in question will destroy everything we have served and fought for. We will not let that happen.” On the evening of Monday, March 27, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced the temporary freeze of the legislation. Laying aside the internal political implications, we expect the long-term strategic-political consequences for the U.S.-Israel relationship, as well as for the United States’ future standing in the Middle East, to be paramount.

The relationship with America has historically been an important one, as the United States has been decisive in ensuring the security and safety of Israel in the Middle East and in the rest of the world. However, the relationship has become strained over the last months and has led the Biden administration to change its rhetoric towards Israel. Statements released by the administration have been increasingly admonitory and interfering with Israeli internal politics. This is highly unusual, as the United States does normally not openly do so towards allies, and, historically, U.S. administrations have adopted this policy towards Israel. This change occurred as a result of several factors, including pressure from the Jewish-American community, which has been very supportive of the opposition to Netanyahu’s government, and radical progressive figures within the Democratic Party and the Congress that are exerting strong pressure on the administration to take a clear stand against the proposed judicial reform.

During a call between President Joe Biden and Netanyahu, Biden “underscored his belief that democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship, that democratic societies are strengthened by genuine checks and balances, and that fundamental changes should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support.” After meeting  Netanyahu on January 30, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that “the relationship between our countries, what we come back to time and again is that it is rooted both in shared interests and in shared values. That includes our support for core democratic principles and institutions.”

This strong attitude towards Israel has not gone unnoticed and has been widely criticized, including by right-wing Knesset member and Minister of National Missions Orit Strock, who tweeted in Hebrew: “Dear Mr. Blinken, I understand that you decided to give our prime minister a lesson in democracy. Well, democracy is first of all the duty of a country to determine its course according to the votes of its citizens, each of which is given equal weight, without foreign involvement.”

Since the (temporary) freezing of the judicial reform, the tension between Washington and Jerusalem has further increased. On 28 March, Biden announced that Netanyahu will not receive an invitation to the White House “in the near term,” and told reporters that “like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned. I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road. I’ve sort of made that clear.” Even for the United States, which recently described the Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich as “offensive, concerning and dangerous,” such comments are unprecedented. Additionally, they coincide with a time of fragile internal and external security in the country, as the religious holidays of Passover, Ramadan, and Easter coincided this year.

Netanyahu himself has strongly rebuked the Biden administration, emphasizing that “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.” Yet Israel now finds itself in an insecure position where it stands to lose political and public support from Washington, and is slowly moving towards diminished economic, political, and security support from its oldest and most powerful ally. This is especially threatening in light of Iran’s rise as a nuclear power, as inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency found uranium particles enriched to 83.7 percent in Iran’s nuclear facilities. Moreover, the terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah have recently expanded their infrastructure, and Israel suffered increased aggression during Passover, with thirty-four rockets fired at Israeli territory from Lebanon—the worst bombardment since the 2006 Lebanon war.

The harsh American involvement in Israel’s internal affairs has been met with bold condemnation from within countries. Instead of weakening the Israeli government and Netanyahu, the Biden administration’s statements invigorated his supporters within both the public and the government coalition. Even center and left-wing political figures expressed their dislike of the U.S. policy towards Israel.

Moving forward, this is expected to have decisive consequences regarding America’s standing in the Middle East in general and the U.S.-Israeli relationship in particular. The image of the United States as a power determined to stand in support of its allies while respecting their internal political processes and refraining from interference in their internal affairs has suffered a strong blow. Pro-American allies in the Arab world—like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan, and Lebanon—will have to take into consideration that the United States might wish in the future to interfere in their own internal affairs, in particular with regard to their willingness to adopt democratic procedures and to go along with issues of human rights and the treatment of minorities. These will make them think twice regarding U.S. pledges of support in case of real and concrete threats to their security from radical powers—in particular, Iran.

The United States’ conduct in the recent internal turmoil will have two major implications in Israel.

First, and most importantly, it exposed the limited power of the United States vis-a-vis Israel. Washington has come to realize that Israel’s dependence on the United States does not deter it from making it clear that it will not tolerate an exceeding American interference in its internal affairs. Moreover, at this stage, it has become clear that U.S. interference in support of the opposition to Netanyahu’s government has no real effect on its policy. More than ever, the Israeli government seems determined to implement the judicial reform.

Second, the statements against Netanyahu will certainly weaken the United States’ image as an “honest broker” in a peace process leading toward a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This faux pas has cost the United States authority in the Middle East, and will make it more challenging for Washington to move ahead on an American peace initiative in the region. This comes alongside a general insecurity about U.S. global leadership in light of Washington’s failed efforts to deter Russia from attacking Ukraine, the Trump-led era, and the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

All in all, the judicial reform and the protests have caused an unprecedented situation, the long-term consequences of which are not yet clear. We can only expect that the precedent of military insubordination will lead to a bandwagon effect, especially regarding missions in the occupied territories. The White House is expected to soften its stance over the coming days and weeks, but Israel still finds itself vulnerable and in tension with its most powerful ally. Nevertheless, Israel has set clear boundaries for the Biden administration, demonstrating that foreign interference with Israeli internal affairs will not be accepted in the future. It is yet unclear how this will play out in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but the changed U.S.-Israel relationship will make the arduous peace process even more complicated in the future.

Even so, the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security has not wavered. U.S. National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby announced during a press conference on March 22 that “[…] the President, in his discussion with Prime Minister Netanyahu, made clear that our support for Israel’s security will remain ironclad. Nothing is going to change about that. President Biden has, through his entire public life, been one of Israel’s strongest supporters and friends, and that will not change.”

Professor Zaki Shalom is a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Professor Emeritus at Ben-Gurion University. He has published extensively on various facets of Israel’s defense policy, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the role of the superpowers in the Middle East, and Israel’s struggle against Islamic terror.