US Relationship With Israel Gets Complicated By Turn Away From Democracy

Today, Israel’s parliament passed a law that increases the power of the country’s right wing, headed by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel does not have a written constitution, and the prime minister’s ruling coalition is in control of both the executive and the legislative branches of government. The only check on them was the courts, which could overturn extreme laws that did not pass a “reasonableness standard,” which means they were not made according to a basic standard of fair and just policymaking. 

The new law aims to take away that judicial power, and it passed by a vote of 64–0 after opponents walked out in protest. Netanyahu’s coalition has indicated it intends to continue to weaken the institutions that can check it. “This is just the beginning,” said National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

For 13 of the last 14 years, Netanyahu, who is under indictment for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, has been Israel’s prime minister. Israeli democracy has weakened under him, in part because, as Zach Beauchamp of Vox explains, his support for Israeli settlement of the West Bank has fed an aggressive right-wing nationalist movement. 

Netanyahu was turned out of the position briefly by a fragile coalition in 2021 but returned to power in December 2022 at the head of a coalition made up of ultranationalist and ultrareligious parties. That coalition commands just 64 out of 120 seats, a bare majority, in the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral legislature, which passes laws and runs the government.

As soon as the coalition formed, it announced its intention of reforming the judiciary to weaken it significantly. It also backed taking over the West Bank and limiting the rights of Palestinians, LGBTQ individuals, and secular Israelis. In early July the government launched a massive attack on the refugee camp in the city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank that killed at least 8 Palestinians and wounded 50 others, saying the camp contained a militant command center. 

Secular and center-left Jewish Israelis flooded the streets to protest as soon as the coalition announced its attack on the judiciary, and they have continued to protest for 29 weeks. Last Saturday, military leaders wrote to Netanyahu, blaming him personally for the damage done to the military and to Israel’s national security, and demanding that he stop. “We, veterans of Israel’s wars,… are raising a blaring red stop sign for you and your government.” Thousands of Israeli military reservists warned they would not report for duty if the judicial overhaul plan passed, dramatically weakening the country’s national security.

If the far-right coalition destroys the independence of the judiciary, it will have kneecapped the courts that could convict Netanyahu. It could also rig future elections by, for example, barring Arab parties from participating, thus cementing its hold on power.

The United States was the first nation to recognize Israel 75 years ago and has been a staunch supporter ever since, to the tune of nearly $4 billion a year. But the country’s rightward lurch is testing the strength of that bond. 

Netanyahu has politicized the two countries’ bonds, openly siding with Trump and Trump Republicans, who continue to offer him their support. President Joe Biden has staunchly supported Israel for 50 years but recently has warned Netanyahu personally against pushing court reform, and last week he took the extraordinary step of inviting New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman to the Oval Office to make his message clear. Biden told Friedman that Israel’s lawmakers should not make fundamental changes to the country’s government without a popular consensus. The White House called today’s vote “unfortunate.” 

Nonetheless, the administration has repeatedly emphasized that the U.S.-Israel relationship is “ironclad,” although White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated that “the core of that relationship is…on democratic values, the shared democratic values and interests.” In the Daily Beast today, David Rothkopf argued that Israel has abandoned those democratic values and thus has ended “America’s special relationship with Israel.” That damage “cannot be easily undone,” he writes. “A relationship built on shared values cannot be easily restored once it is clear those values are no longer shared.” 

Two former U.S. ambassadors to Israel, Dan Kurtzer and Martin Indyk, have called for the U.S. to cut military aid to that country, saying it is time to develop a new approach to the relationship. At the New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof points out that Israel is a wealthy country and that U.S. aid is essentially “a backdoor subsidy to American military contractors.” 

In order to stay in power and avoid his legal trouble, Netanyahu must cater to his country’s hard right, no matter the cost to the nation. In the Washington Post today, columnist Max Boot noted that Netanyahu is undermining Israeli democracy, risking Israel’s relationship with the U.S., and threatening to spark a violent uprising among West Bank Palestinians. 

In the U.S. today, after Texas governor Greg Abbott responded to the Justice Department’s letter warning him his buoys and razor wire in the Rio Grande were illegal by telling the government he would see it in court, the Department of Justice filed a civil complaint against the state of Texas on the same grounds it cited in the letter: the deployment of barriers breaks the Rivers and Harbors Act. It also threatens to damage U.S. foreign policy by breaking international treaties with Mexico, and foreign policy is exclusively the responsibility of the federal government. 

Today the Department of Justice also agreed to permit U.S. attorney David Weiss to testify before the House Judiciary Committee…but with a twist. Weiss is the Trump-appointed official in charge of investigating President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden. In response to Weiss’s decision to charge Biden with two misdemeanor tax offenses and permit a pretrial diversion agreement with regard to a firearms charge, Trump Republicans have spread widely the accusations of two Internal Revenue Service investigators that Attorney General Merrick Garland tied Weiss’s hands. (As far as I can tell, these witnesses are not official whistleblowers, a designation that would mean the inspector general has agreed their accusations have merit.)

Weiss has publicly denied that accusation twice, but committee chair Jim Jordan (R-OH), Ways and Means Committee chair Jason Smith (R-MO), and Oversight Committee chair James Comer (R-KY) have demanded that Weiss, as well as more than a dozen other officials, testify before their committees. 

But while the committee chairs have asked for closed-door testimony, the Justice Department today said it will make Weiss available for a public hearing, writing: “The Department believes it is strongly in the public interest for the American people and for Congress to hear directly from U.S. Attorney Weiss on these assertions and questions about his authority at a public hearing.” The Justice Department has proposed a number of dates for that hearing immediately after the House comes back from its August recess. 

Russia continues to bomb the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, targeting agricultural infrastructure. Putin seems to have decided that if he can’t have Odesa, neither can anyone else. On Friday, Russia destroyed 100 tons of peas and 20 tons of barley in Odesa. Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian grain facilities just as the wheat harvest begins have spiked global grain prices and threatened food exports to Africa, which Russia has suggested it could take over itself. Russia’s attacks on Ukraine have badly damaged the country’s agricultural capacity, a blow to global food supplies. Today, Klaus Iohannis, the president of Romania, said he “strongly condemn[s]” Russian attacks on grain transit after Russians hit the port of Reni on the Romanian border.

Russia’s attacks on the city have also badly damaged famous cultural sites, earning condemnation in “the strongest terms” from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Such attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure and cultural treasures are another attempt to swing the war in Russia’s direction. 

And on Friday, Russian officials announced they are raising the maximum age that men can be conscripted into military service from 27 to 30 years old.

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