newsU.S.-Israel Relations

Biden weighs in on Israeli judicial reform for the first time

The U.S. president stressed the importance of consensus building for “fundamental changes” • NYT columnist Thomas Friedman: If Netanyahu keeps moving ahead, he’ll be snubbing the White House.

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a dinner at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a dinner at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday weighed in on the showdown taking place in Israel over Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s judicial reform plan.

In reply to a question from The New York Times‘ veteran 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.”

In a column that dropped on the Times’ website one minute after midnight on Sunday, Friedman interpreted that to mean that Biden was signaling to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S.-Israeli relationship “has never truly rested on shared interests,” but has “always been built up from our shared values.”

Biden was implying, according to Friedman, that “whatever Israel does, it must not fundamentally depart from those shared values. Otherwise, we are in a totally new world.”

Friedman suggested that Jerusalem was attempting “to strip the Israeli Supreme Court of its independence” and “put it instead under Netanyahu’s thumb,” and also stated that Israel’s behavior in Judea and Samaria and Gaza was “not consistent with [U.S.] values.”

He called the prime minister’s coalition “ultranationalist” and “ultrareligious” and wrote that the reforms could “seriously damage Israel’s democracy and therefore its close ties to America and democracies everywhere.”

It was the first time a U.S. president had ever weighed in on an internal debate in Israel regarding something as fundamental as the nature of the country’s democracy, said Friedman. If Netanyahu “just keeps plowing ahead,” he will be snubbing the U.S. president. “That’s no small deal,” he wrote.

In response, Wall Street Journal letters editor Elliot Kaufman, in a tweet that referenced Israel’s 1990s’ “judicial revolution” that the reforms in question seek to reverse, said that a snub was in order.

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee is scheduled to resume its debate over the reform on Sunday, while a vote to approve the bill for a first reading could take place as early as the next day. If the proposed legislation is approved on Monday, then it could be sent for its first reading in the plenum as early as Wednesday.

Organizers of the weekly Saturday night protests against the government’s judicial reform have called for a nationwide strike this week.

“On Monday, we will head to Jerusalem to defend and fight for our country,” said Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid in extending political backing for the move. “Employers need to allow every worker who wants to go to Jerusalem to fight for the country, to fight for our democracy and to say that we will not allow you to destroy our democracy.’”

Lapid last month called the government’s proposed judicial overhaul an “extreme regime change” and vowed to continue fighting in streets across the country in “a war over our home.”

In response, Netanyahu accused his political opponents of “planting the seeds of disaster” by encouraging a rebellion against a democratically-elected government.

The prime minister last week harshly criticized what he said was a “growing wave” of threats directed at himself and other officials, after a leader of the anti-government protests appeared to call for his assassination.

Netanyahu’s remarks came after former Israel Air Force pilot Ze’ev Raz wrote on Facebook that “If a prime minister rises and assumes dictatorial powers, he is a dead man, it’s that simple…. There’s an obligation to kill him.”

The judicial reform proposal includes changing the way judges are selected so that the Knesset members will have 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 or government decisions; abolishing the legal justification of “reasonableness” by which the court can cancel laws or government decisions; and empowering ministers to hire and fire their own legal advisers.

Netanyahu has rejected as “baseless” claims by critics that the reforms would mark the end of the country’s democracy, and vowed to implement them “responsibly.”

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