'Democracy built on checks & balances, independent judiciary'

Biden, in first direct comment on judicial overhaul, urges ‘consensus building’

As Netanyahu government forges ahead with controversial legislative package, US president echoes plea of Israel’s Herzog, who urged a pause for dialogue

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

File: US President Joe Biden meets then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (right) at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. At left is Secretary of State Antony Blinken; 2nd-left is US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. (GPO)
File: US President Joe Biden meets then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (right) at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. At left is Secretary of State Antony Blinken; 2nd-left is US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. (GPO)

US President Joe Biden weighed in publicly for the first time Saturday on the plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to dramatically weaken Israel’s judiciary.

In a statement to The New York Times, Biden said, “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.

“Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained,” he added.

The statement was published two days before the Netanyahu government is slated to bring some of the most controversial legislative proposals for the first of their three required readings in the Knesset, despite pleas from President Isaac Herzog for the coalition to pause its efforts in order to hold a consensus-seeking dialogue on its controversial plans.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who had sought Biden’s take on the judicial overhaul, and to whom the president sent the statement, wrote that this marked “the first time I can recall a US president has ever weighed in on an internal Israeli debate about the very character of the country’s democracy.”

Biden’s statement appeared to put him in line with Herzog and out of step with the Netanyahu government’s effort to engage in a sweeping overhaul of the judiciary.

The proposals include severely restricting the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions and passing an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate laws that were struck down; giving the government control over the selection of judges; preventing the court from using a test of “reasonableness” against which to judge legislation and government decisions; and allowing ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry.

Israeli protesters lift national flags as they rally in central Tel Aviv, on February 11, 2023, against controversial legal reforms being touted by the country’s far-right government. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Biden’s statement represented a further escalation of the US stance against the Israeli effort.

A day after the legislative package was announced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin on January 4, two US officials told The Times of Israel that the administration was not planning on pressuring Israel against implementing the overhaul. The officials explained that the matter was an internal Israeli one and that Washington preferred to reserve its voice for weighing in on policies that more directly impact the effort to promote a two-state solution.

But as tens of thousands of Israelis began taking to the streets to protest the government’s plans, the US appeared to gradually follow in their direction. On January 9, the State Department issued a somewhat vague statement saying that “Israel’s independent institutions are crucial to upholding the country’s thriving democracy, and our shared democratic values are at the heart of our bilateral relationship.”

Ten days later, a senior Biden official leaked to the media that visiting National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan discussed the judicial overhaul during a one-on-one meeting with Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

Thousands of Israeli protesters rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on February 4, 2023 (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken then went even further, nodding to the anti-Netanyahu protesters while standing alongside the prime minister after their meeting on January 30.

“We have seen lately how vibrant Israeli civil society is,” Blinken said in comments that highlighted the two countries’ shared democratic values. “That includes our support for core democratic principles and institutions, including respect for human rights, the equal administration of justice for all, the equal rights of minority groups, the rule of law, free press, a robust civil society – and the vibrancy of Israel’s civil society has been on full display of late.”

Speaking more directly about the Netanyahu government’s plans, Blinken stressed that “building consensus for new proposals is the most effective way to ensure they’re embraced and that they endure.”

Biden made largely the same point in his own statement on Saturday. But the fact that the words were coming from him directly indicates how seriously the administration is taking the issue.

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