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How Americans can save Israeli democracy

Israeli elites have mobilized to attempt to essentially overturn last November’s Knesset election results. Foreign friends who help them shouldn’t pretend it’s about democracy.

U.S. President Joe Biden at a NATO summit in Brussels, March 24, 2022. Credit: Gints Ivuskans/Shutterstock.
U.S. President Joe Biden at a NATO summit in Brussels, March 24, 2022. Credit: Gints Ivuskans/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

President Joe Biden isn’t the first American president to intervene in Israeli politics. U.S. administrations have been doing so for decades with generally dismal results. Yet there was something different about the comments Biden recently made to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

Prompted by Friedman, Biden dropped a 46-word sermon about democracy and consensus-building that sounded like sage advice but, in the context of the current moment, was nothing less than a carefully considered slap in the face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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In the past, Washington has sought to pressure Israeli governments to prop up failed peace process ideas, restrain them from defending Jewish rights or prevent them from holding the Palestinian leadership accountable for supporting terrorism.

And, of course, American presidents have done their best to influence Israeli voters to favor candidates that will do as Washington bids them. Most memorably, Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama repeatedly tried to defeat Netanyahu, while Donald Trump sought to help him.

Yet Friedman is right to note that never before has an American president issued a statement that seeks to influence a Knesset debate on domestic Israeli issues. That Biden did so is presented as an indication of the seriousness of the moment, as well as a call to stalwart friends of the Jewish state to act to save Israeli democracy. The alleged threat to this democracy is, of course, the Netanyahu government’s judicial reform proposals.

Here’s what Biden said: “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. Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”

That someone like Biden, who has called his political opponents “fascists” and accused them of wanting to put black people “back in chains” has the nerve to lecture Israelis about consensus-building is pretty rich.

The same applies to pushing through massive changes via legislation without a broad political consensus. Lack of consensus didn’t stop the Obama-Biden administration from passing a bill that altered America’s health care insurance system on the basis of a slim congressional majority not dissimilar to the one now possessed by Netanyahu. Nor did it prevent them from concluding the most important foreign agreement since the aftermath of World War II—the disastrous Iran nuclear deal—without the backing of a majority of either the House or the Senate and with polls showing the public strongly opposed.

As for an independent judiciary, Biden’s all for it, so long as it does what he wants. The president has repeatedly criticized the U.S. courts when they uphold the Constitution and thwart left-wing efforts to reinterpret it. Many members of Biden’s party have called for packing the Supreme Court because it currently has a conservative majority—though Biden didn’t go along. The president has also refused to condemn statements seeking to intimidate the justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, even to the point of remaining silent after an assassination was plotted against Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The real problem with Biden’s lecture, however, is not its breathtaking hypocrisy. It’s the notion that Israeli democracy is in danger because of judicial reform proposals put forward by a government that won a clear majority only three months ago.

Equally egregious is the idea that Americans who want to back Netanyahu’s opponents can preserve Israeli democracy by joining an assault on the government being mobilized by Israel’s liberal elites, who largely control its media, economic and legal institutions.

In fact, the best thing Jewish or non-Jewish Americans, no matter where they sit on the political or religious spectrum, can do to boost the cause of democracy in the Jewish state is to respect the outcome of its elections and stay out of the current controversy.

That’s not to say that Jews outside of Israel aren’t entitled to their opinions about what goes on in the Jewish state. Israel is the vital center of Jewish life and everything that concerns it is the concern of the entire Jewish people. Moreover, Israeli institutions, organizations and political leaders have never been shy about rallying the support of American Jewry when it was in their interests to do so. Virtually every school, hospital, charitable endeavor and political cause of any size or consequence has its “American friends of” U.S.-based support group. Seen in that light, any argument about the necessity for American silence on the issues of the day in Israel or who should run it is absurd.

Yet there is one caveat to that broad principle: Diaspora Jews can say whatever they like about Israel, but they should also have some humility when doing so.

That’s not just a function of the inequality of sacrifice or risk that the two communities bear. Only Israeli Jews pay the ruinous taxes that are levied on the country’s citizens and, more importantly, send their children to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Though American Jews are subject to antisemitic attacks, they are not on the front lines of a sustained campaign of Palestinian terrorism, as is the case in Israel.

Yet the real problem is the chutzpah of Americans weighing in on Israeli political disputes with only the biased coverage of outlets like the Times to guide them. This explains the vast disconnect between Americans and Israelis when it comes to security issues. The overwhelming majority of Israelis understand that the nonsense about the conflict with the Palestinians peddled by the likes of Friedman is divorced from reality.

Moreover, Biden’s comments effectively support a political campaign based not so much on a desire to preserve democracy but on the desire to thwart it. The Israeli Supreme Court’s arrogation of unprecedented and unique powers to itself is a way for forces within Israeli society that have been on the losing side of most recent elections to retain control regardless of who sits in the Prime Minister’s Office.

The effort to stop the government from passing the agenda on which it won the last election is itself anti-democratic. Resisting the kind of pressure to which politicians who usually seek the praise of establishment institutions often succumb will be a genuine test of Netanyahu and his coalition’s courage.

Talk about democracy in peril is nothing less than an attempt by Israeli politicians to import Democratic Party talking points with which Biden and his supporters sought to label their Republican opponents as anti-democratic. Those seeking to rally Americans behind those politicians are intervening in a political squabble in which, despite the apocalyptic rhetoric, Diaspora Jewry and the U.S. government have no reason or right to intervene.

An Israel in which there will be some checks and balances—currently absent in a situation in which the Supreme Court can rule unchallenged, without reference to law but only its own sense of what is “reasonable”—will be more of a democracy and not the proto-authoritarian or theocratic state that Netanyahu’s foes talk about in their partisan smears.

No matter how the battle over judicial reform is resolved in the Knesset, Israel will remain a democracy. No matter where you stand on the Israeli judiciary, the best way to support democracy in Israel is to avoid participating in an effort to effectively overturn the results of a democratic election. That’s a stand that Biden and his many Jewish supporters consider a litmus test of virtue when it comes to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. They should treat the results of Israeli democracy with the same respect.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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