(February 19, 2023 / JNS) Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli rebuked U.S. Ambassador Thomas Nides on Sunday after the American envoy jumped into the debate over Jerusalem’s proposed judicial reform package.
“I say to the American ambassador, slam the breaks on yourself and mind your own business,” said Chikli regarding Nides’s call for the Israeli government to modify its initiative. “You’re not the sovereign here. We’d be happy to debate with you international or security affairs, but respect our democracy,” he added.
“The relationship with the United States is very important, but this intervention by Nides is very problematic,” said Chikli.
Chikli’s remarks came after Nides told former Obama administration official David Axelrod during a podcast interview that the Biden administration was demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “pump the brakes” on the judicial reforms.
“We’re telling the prime minister—as I tell my kids—‘pump the brakes, slow down, try to get a consensus, bring the parties together,'” said Nides. While the United States was not going to “dictate” to Israel how to conduct its internal affairs, Nides qualified that “the one thing that binds our countries together is a sense of democracy.”
Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden weighed in on the showdown taking place in Israel over the government’s judicial reform plan.
In reply to a question from The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, Biden said that for any fundamental change to be sustainable, consensus was required.
“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,” he said. “Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”
Friedman interpreted that to mean that Biden was signaling to Netanyahu that the U.S.-Israeli relationship “has never truly rested on shared interests,” but has “always been built up from our shared values.”
Opposition leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid Party last week slammed the Israeli government as “corrupt” and “extremist” at a demonstration against the judicial reforms held outside the Knesset.
“They hear our strength and our commitment. They pretend they don’t hear and that they’re not afraid—but they hear and are afraid…. They’re trembling as rulers have always trembled when they discovered that there were people facing them who were not ready to give up.
“We will fight in the streets, we’ll fight until we win,” said Lapid.
The same day, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said, “This is the history of the world. Countries become dictatorships through the use of democratic tools…. Countries do not become democratic again, except with bloodshed.”
For his part, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called for the protest movement against the government to move to the next stage, one fueled by violent confrontation.
“What is needed is to move to the next stage, the stage of war, and war is not waged with speeches. War is waged in a face-to-face battle, head-to-head and hand-to-hand, and that is what will happen here,” he said in an interview with DemocraTV.
In response, Netanyahu urged on opposition leaders to stop leading Israel into chaos after a tempestuous Knesset committee meeting.
“I call on the leaders of the opposition: Stop this. Stop deliberately dragging the country into anarchy. Get over yourself. Show responsibility and leadership because you’re doing the exact opposite,” the prime minister said in a video posted to social media.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Simcha Rothman subsequently called on leaders of the opposition to meet at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem to discuss the government’s judicial reform program.
Lapid rejected the overture, saying he would only agree to meet if the proposed legislation was paused.
The government’s plan includes changing the way judges are selected so that the Knesset members will have a majority say on the Judicial Selection Committee; passing an “override clause,” a law that would give legislators the power to reverse, or “override,” the Supreme Court when it strikes down laws; abolishing the legal justification of “reasonableness” by which the court can cancel Knesset decisions; and empowering ministers to hire and fire their own legal advisers.
Netanyahu has described as “baseless” claims by critics that the proposals would mark the end of the country’s democracy, and vowed to implement the plan “responsibly.”
“The truth is that the balance between the branches of government has been violated over the past two decades,” said Netanyahu. “This unusual phenomenon does not exist anywhere else in the world—not in the United States, not in Western Europe and not during Israel’s first 50 years of existence.”
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