The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Israel erupts, Biden faces politically volatile pressures

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan comes as U.S. President Biden is about to host a democracy summit

An Israeli protester throws a poster of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu onto a bonfire as clashes erupt over the Israeli leader's proposed judicial overhaul. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)
10 min

The White House expressed relief Monday after a divisive plan to overhaul Israel’s judiciary was put on hold, delaying at least for the moment the prospect of a tumultuous democratic breakdown by one of America’s closest global allies just as President Biden is aiming to champion democracy on the world stage.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has not abandoned his unprecedented push to change the country’s system of checks and balances, is one of several world leaders the Biden administration invited to speak Wednesday at a “Summit for Democracy. The gathering is part of Biden’s signature effort to herald judicial independence and other values that critics — including many in Israel and even in the prime minister’s orbit — say Netanyahu is actively undermining.

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A national crisis: Protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judicial system began when it was first announced in January. They have become the largest sustained mass demonstrations in the country’s history and forced Israel to confront long-standing questions over its national character.
Raging protests: View photos from the protests and meet the Israelis who have turned out to object to the right-wing government’s plan, including veteran soldiers from elite combat units.
Israel’s parliamentary system: The Supreme Court is viewed as the sole check on lawmakers and the prime minister. Israel’s high court reviews appeals from lower courts and hears petitions filed against the government and public bodies.
What the judicial overhaul would do: The plan would give the government greater power to choose judges, including those presiding over Netanyahu’s corruption trial. It also would eliminate judicial review of legislation and allow parliament to vote on Supreme Court decisions.
Why it’s divided the country: Supporters of Netanyahu’s coalition argue the court is populated by leftist elites and has oppressed the will of a country that has been pivoting toward the religious and nationalist right. Liberal Israelis consider the Supreme Court the last bastion of their democracy.
What would this do for Netanyahu? Ending judicial oversight would be a major win for Netanyahu’s far-right coalition, whose members have vowed to prioritize Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic one. It would also enable Netanyahu to legally protect allies such as Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.


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The tension puts Biden in a difficult political predicament, caught between the crosscurrents of his longtime support for the Jewish state and an Israeli leader facing massive protests for purportedly assaulting the democratic values that Biden has put at the center of his foreign policy. The drama is unfolding against the backdrop of a subtle but unmistakable shift in Israel’s place in American politics, as some Democrats, along with many in the American Jewish community, are far more willing to push back against its policies.

Netanyahu has already recorded a video message for Biden’s democracy summit and submitted it to U.S. officials in Washington, said a diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. The Biden administration has given no indication that it plans to rescind Netanyahu’s speaking opportunity at the summit, though some liberal supporters of Israel say providing a platform for Netanyahu under the current circumstances is at odds with the mission of the summit.

“I think it would send a demoralizing signal to the Israeli public that has been protesting for their democracy for months,” said Joel Rubin, a former Obama administration official and onetime executive director of the American Jewish Congress. “The power of the president’s leadership as a longtime friend of Israel is immense.”

As Israel has moved to the right and Netanyahu has become more responsive to the voices of nationalists and religious leaders, the country has come in for more criticism from the base of the Democratic Party, which has become younger and more diverse. In 2018, Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan became the first Palestinian-American elected to serve in Congress. And some in the Black Lives Matter movement have spoken of parallels between Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and their own struggles.

In a Pew Research Center poll last year, 67 percent Americans expressed a favorable view of the Israeli people, compared to 52 percent who felt favorably toward the Palestinians. But among people under 30 the pattern was reversed: 61 percent viewed the Palestinian people favorably, while 56 percent said the same about the Israelis.

The tension between Biden and Netanyahu has also had a personal element. Netanyahu has taken an unusually partisan approach to American politics, making clear his disdain for former president Barack Obama and openly embracing former president Donald Trump, an attitude that Trump reciprocated.

For Biden, whose White House has released unusually direct statements in recent days expressing concern about Netanyahu’s push to overhaul its judicial system, the matter is especially politically sensitive, said Eric Alterman, a historian and author of “We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel.”

“Biden has to decide if he if he wants to appeal to Netanyahu, or if he wants to appeal to the Israeli people,” he said, referring to the thousands of Israeli citizens who have taken to the streets to protest in recent weeks.

Biden increasingly at odds with his party over Israel

The civil unrest boiled over Sunday night after Netanyahu fired his defense minister, who had publicly criticized his effort to remake the country’s courts. The plan would give Netanyahu’s government greater power to select judges, a move that could impact the prime minister’s own corruption trial as well as rulings on an array of subjects, including civil liberties and Palestinian rights.

Thousands of Israelis have blasted the plan as an assault on the country’s system of checks and balances, and many Jewish Americans have called for the White House to take a tougher stance in favor of democracy, even if it means crossing a longtime ally.

White House officials, asked if Netanyahu’s participation in Wednesday’s democracy summit was appropriate, declined to second guess the invitation.

“Israel was one of the 121 countries invited to the Summit for Democracy,” said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. “I don’t have anything more with regards to participation to speak to.”

When asked about Netanyahu’s judicial retooling writ large, Kirby said the Biden administration has said “privately” and “publicly” that the legislation would “fly in the face of the whole idea of checks and balances.” Such language amounts to an unusually strong rebuke for a country that U.S. officials often praise as a lone beacon of democracy in a region dominated by authoritarians.

Since Biden took power, he has made a concerted effort to avoid public spats with Israel, which enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress even as its support among rank-and-file Democrats has been slipping.

Early in Biden’s presidency, Israel launched a major incursion into Gaza after Hamas had repeatedly fired rockets into Israel. After several conversations with Netanyahu, Biden cautiously called for a cease-fire, then ramped up his message and more forcefully urged the sides to de-escalate.

While hardly a major break with the Jewish state, it was a signal that despite Biden’s longtime support, Israel could not count on unconditional backing during his presidency.

Regarding the current crisis in Israel, one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, said the administration would continue to try to stay under the radar and avoid a messy confrontation.

When asked if Biden administration was failing to rise to the occasion, Rubin, a Biden ally, said “they recognize there are limited tools in their toolbox.”

He added: “Would I like to see more people in Congress speak up? Yes. Israelis look at what Americans says every day.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the White House was pleased to see Netanyahu hit pause on his plan, and urged the government and opposition to reach an agreement on the path forward. “We continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible,” she said.

Jean-Pierre said Biden had a “very honest conversation” with Netanyahu about his judicial plan.

The White House has been trying to proceed delicately. On March 19, officials released a summary of Biden’s phone call with Netanyahu, saying the president had conveyed his belief that “fundamental changes should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support.” In a statement after Netanyahu fired his defense minister, the White House said it was “deeply concerned” by the developments.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said the public messages reflected a sentiment that Biden had delivered “more directly in private” about the state of democracy in Israel.

“It appears that the prime minister took his advice, for now, and that has bought time for a different approach with the possibility of a more consensual outcome,” Shapiro said.

The pause also may allow Biden to move forward with his democracy summit with less concern about Netanyahu’s participation, pointing to Israel as a place with strong enough institutions to withstand a crisis, he added.

“The fact that even a very divisive debate can reach a point where there’s at least an opening for dialogue and for an attempt to reach a degree of consensus is actually a hallmark of a strong democracy,” Shapiro said.

The harder challenge may come as Israel seeks to find a compromise that is acceptable to liberal and secular Israelis, as well as to the religiously conservative factions. If that fails, Biden will again face the difficult challenge of crafting a diplomatic but firm response.

In the meantime, Biden, whose relationship with Netanyahu stretches back across four decades, may feel pressure to tread gingerly, given the complex domestic politics in the United States. While some Democrats have grown more forceful in criticizing Israel over various issues, there are few signs that the bipartisan coalition supporting the longtime U.S. ally is collapsing.

“I’d leave that up to the Israelis,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said Monday when asked if he had a reaction to the judicial overhaul crisis.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said he does not see anything Congress or Biden should do at this point to pressure Netanyahu, although he mentioned that many members of Congress had sent letters saying the prime minister’s proposal was unacceptable.

“I think Netanyahu is in a political bind at this point where if the courts go forward he may lose his leadership, but if he continues with the strategy he may lose it as well,” said Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat and chair of the Judiciary Committee. “He’s created an impossible situation.”

Some Democrats are calling for tougher actions by the U.S. government, particularly since the mass protests erupted in Israel and Netanyahu abruptly fired his defense minister.

“President Biden was correct in emphasizing that shared democratic values are at the heart of the U.S.-Israeli partnership,” said Mara Rudman, executive vice president at the Center for American Progress, who served as a Middle East envoy during the Obama administration. “The Biden administration can only be further concerned by the lack of a responsible figure focused on Israel’s security leading the defense ministry.”

For their part, Republicans are likely to seize on any daylight between Biden and the Israeli government to accuse the president of failing to stand up for America’s closest ally in the Middle East. The political dynamics, coming just as Biden is preparing to launch his bid for reelection, are only likely to get more fraught as the 2024 race heats up, Alterman said.

Netanyahu’s close relationship with Trump, who is running to oust Biden from office, is yet another factor the president has to consider as he approaches a delicate matter that has implications for the domestic politics of both the United States and Israel.

“There’s not that much [Biden] can do in public. There are probably some things he can do in private, as long as he doesn’t humiliate Netanyahu and put him in a corner,” Alterman said. “If he tries to cancel him, then Biden will have the kind of fight on his hands that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with.”

Tyler Pager and Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.