No sooner had the Knesset passed a key piece of judicial reform on Monday than the Biden administration was criticizing Israeli lawmakers.
“It is unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority,” stated White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “The United States will continue to support the efforts of President Herzog and other Israeli leaders as they seek to build a broader consensus through political dialogue.”
Isaac Herzog, the Israeli president who visited Washington and New York last week, holds a ceremonial role in the Jewish state, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (whom the White House statement did not name) is the elected head of the Israeli government.
“The last thing Israel needs right now is for Joe Biden to inject his own personal politics into its national debate,” tweeted Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). “Unprecedented as it is embarrassing.”
“It’s unprecedented for an American president to meddle in Israel’s internal affairs—especially one who won’t even criticize our actual enemies,” Cotton added. “Joe Biden is showing his true colors.”
In response to a reporter’s question during the U.S. State Department’s press briefing on Monday, spokesman Matthew Miller read the White House statement almost verbatim.
Later on in the briefing, Miller was asked if there could be negative repercussions for Israel due to the vote.
“We have a longstanding friendship with the government of Israel that really transcends any one issue,” he said. “It is because of our friendship with the government of Israel and our friendship with the people of Israel, that the president and other members of this administration felt the responsibility to speak out about this measure and express our concern.”
Many Jewish Democratic legislators also opposed the legislation. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) stated that Netanyahu and his “extremist coalition” passed a law that “desecrates judicial independence. It is a dark day for Israeli democracy.”
“As a pro-Israel Jew, I am deeply disappointed to see the passage of the first step of the anti-democratic judicial overhaul plan,” tweeted Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.). “Israel’s government should heed the voice of its citizens, aim to find consensus and reaffirm a commitment to the checks and balances of democracy.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) tweeted that the “premeditated right-wing hit on judicial review in Israel is a profound disappointment in the wake of President Herzog’s fine speech in Congress last week—and a setback to liberal democracy on earth.”
“I will always stand strong with the hundreds of thousands of Israelis marching for a strong democratic Israel which upholds the spirit of freedom, human rights and equal justice under reasoned law,” Raskin added.
Scott Wiener, a Democratic state senator in San Francisco and co-chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, tweeted that the law’s passage was “unacceptable.”
“As a Jew and a strong supporter of the State of Israel, I unequivocally condemn the Netanyahu government’s attack on Israel’s independent judiciary,” he stated. “Israel must be a democracy and a place where the rule of law is paramount.” (Wiener has previously called for increasing the size of the U.S. Supreme Court.)
Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.), who joined 13 other Democratic members of Congress in calling to condition U.S. aid to Israel, did not comment on the law. But Caroline Ellert, his communications director, told JNS that the congressman is monitoring the “concerning” developments.
‘Restoring the court to its proper role’
Some analysts in Washington told JNS that legislation is necessary and appropriate.
“Israel’s government, over strenuous objections, has taken the first necessary steps towards restoring the court to its proper role,” Zack Smith, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, as well as manager of its Supreme Court and appellate advocacy program, told JNS.
“Momentous policy decisions should be made by the people’s elected representatives not by unelected judges who implement their own preferred policies under the guise of judicial decisions,” Smith added. “Far from undermining the rule of law, the passage of this reform is a first step to restoring it.”
Danielle Pletka, a distinguished senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told JNS she might welcome U.S. President Joe Biden’s views on the Israeli Supreme Court if he “were commenting on the strikes in France, the raising of the retirement age in Italy [and] the Indigenous Voice campaign in Australia.”
“But given he hasn’t,” Pletka said. “I have to assume he thinks somehow the Jews deserve his inappropriate interference because they are somehow less advanced and require his patronizing meddling. Guess what, they don’t.”
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS that reform is necessary, but it was a shame that a compromise couldn’t be reached prior to the vote.
“There are a lot of people declaring an end to Israeli democracy. I think this is an exaggeration,” he said. “Many Israelis will admit there needs to be reforms in the judiciary, but the problem is this was a one-sided action opposed by the Israeli center and left.”
Biden is “not wrong” to express concern on the legislation’s effect on Israeli society, according to Schanzer. But he said the president’s statement was inappropriate.
“It is a bit rich,” he pointed out, “that this criticism is coming from someone whose engagement with Iran has been viewed domestically as imperiling to Israeli security.”