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It doesn’t matter how many times Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he’s “strengthening democracy” by exerting political control over Israel’s judiciary. He knows it’s not true.
And US President Joe Biden knows that he knows it’s not true.
Biden’s astonishing public criticism on Tuesday of Netanyahu’s bid to turn Israel from a tolerant Jewish democracy into a personal fiefdom — the warning that Israel “cannot continue down this road,” and the call on Netanyahu to “walk away” from the current legislation that seeks to neuter the courts — saw the US president adding his considerable weight to the effort to protect a country he loves from a prime minister manifestly determined to do whatever it takes to retain power. Whatever it takes, including rending the fabric of Israeli society, destroying the economy, and undermining the cohesion of the security forces.
The immediate attempts by Netanyahu and his loyalists to discredit the US president, as everything from a victim of “fake news” about the judicial revolution to an outright adversary of the state, patently hold no water.
Not all of Biden’s policies in this region find favor in Israel; his disinclination to more forcefully counter Iran has caused profound dismay across much of the political spectrum. But he is a lifelong outspoken Zionist, with a track record of commitment, who declared in the most stirring terms during his visit here last year that, after more than 50 years in the federal government helping to build bilateral ties, “seeing Israel thrive, seeing the wildest dreams of Israel’s founding fathers and mothers grow into a reality that Israel’s children enjoy today, to me is close to miraculous.”
And he is aware of precisely what is unfolding here right now, of Netanyahu’s power grab and its deceptive presentation as a restoration of balance to the branches of government. America’s ties with Israel are the most intimate of relationships, with the most nuanced interaction at every level of every bilateral sphere. You only had to watch and listen to what Biden was saying at Raleigh-Durham airport for the evidence.
Biden: "Like many strong supporters of Israel I'm very concerned. I'm concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road. Netanyahu won't be invited to the White House in the near term" pic.twitter.com/YeuH6QbT3cAdvertisement
— Yosef Yisrael (@yosefyisrael25) March 28, 2023
“Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can try to work out some genuine compromise,” said the president, his emphasis on the word “genuine” underlining that the 80-year-old leader of the free world, with a globe-load of crises on his table, nonetheless recognizes exactly what kind of radical legislation Netanyahu has been bulldozering through the Knesset, that the prime minister’s overreach in firing his defense minister had compelled him to order a temporary pause, and that there is well-founded skepticism that the dialogue he has consented to enter is anything other than a brief delay before that legislative blitz resumes.
Netanyahu’s immediate and scathing response served only to reinforce all the fears about his increasingly destructive behavior. Basically, the prime minister told the leader of Israel’s existential ally that he didn’t know what he was talking about, and to butt out.
Netanyahu knew all along how incendiary it would be to give the Jewish supremacist and theocrat Bezalel Smotrich a central role in government, let alone rights in the Defense Ministry. He knew anti-Arab provocateur Itamar Ben Gvir was just about the last person who should be placed in charge of the police. He knew how divisive it would be to accede to ultra-Orthodox demands for a blanket exclusion from military and national service. And he knew that the judicial revolution he was unleashing was the antithesis of “reform.”
But he’s taken all these unthinkable steps and more, having convinced himself that his own political survival is essential to this country’s survival.
In fact, the opposite is the case. He and his loyalists are tearing Israel apart.
Netanyahu’s resort to a temporary pause and consent to a new dialogue under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog, however cynical the prime minister’s motives, still offers a way out of this disaster.
We now have two horrified presidents, at home and abroad, pleading with Netanyahu to abandon his current proposals and engage in a substantive, patient effort to institute genuine judicial reform via discussion and by consensus.
The talks that began on Tuesday could indeed, as Herzog has long said, mark a “defining constitutional moment.” (A mediator who has not previously headed an opposition party might be an idea, incidentally.)
Israelis have recognized, these past three months, how vulnerable our democracy is, the lack of protection afforded our fundamental rights, the utter inadequacy of so-called “Basic Laws” that were never collected, supplemented and entrenched as a constitution. It has never been more obvious that this miraculous, complex country, with a populace of such diversity and often contradictory beliefs and priorities, needs a guaranteed framework for tolerant, stable internal coexistence, with the Declaration of Independence as an invaluable blueprint.
Out of crisis, opportunity has emerged — a path to heal the widening rifts.
But as we all know and the leader of our superpower ally emphasized, it’s up to the prime minister.
The dreadful, divisive nightmare Netanyahu has imposed on Israel these past three months, prioritizing his assault on the rule of law at the expense of every core national interest, leaves little room for optimism. Were he to seize the opportunity, after all, he really would be strengthening democracy.
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