US Secretary of State Antony Blinken isn’t the first senior US official to take shots at Israeli democracy.
Referencing gender segregation on Haredi buses and religious IDF soldiers walking out of a concert by a female singer, former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2011 compared parts of Israel to Iran and the US south under Jim Crow laws.
But it is hard to remember a visiting US secretary of state lecturing Israel’s democratically elected leaders so pointedly on what democratic values are, and why they must be protected, almost every time he was in front of a microphone and the press.
Standing alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, Blinken treated the premier to his list of core democratic principles: “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.”
He also gave Israel’s longest-serving leader a lesson in governance, informing Netanyahu that “building consensus for new proposals is the most effective way to ensure they’re embraced and that they endure.”
Blinken continued broadcasting his message to Israel’s ruling coalition even when he wasn’t with its members. During a meeting the next day with young civil society leaders, Blinken told them that their work can keep governments “focused and honest when it comes to making sure that we’re adhering to the principles that we all espouse.”
He was expressing his concerns as the Netanyahu coalition is pushing a series of sweeping reforms that would dramatically government control over the judiciary. The plan has drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts, weekly mass protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals and private companies, and direct opposition from the president of the Supreme Court, Esther Hayut, and the government’s senior legal adviser, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara.
Netanyahu’s government also includes right-wing politicians like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, whose past statements about West Bank annexation, Arabs, and LGBTQ Israelis unnerve the White House about where this government is headed.
Indeed, it wasn’t only on judicial reforms that Blinken indicated patience with Israel was wearing thin. On Israeli-Palestinian tensions, he seemed to place much of the blame at Israel’s door after the recent spike in violence.
Meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — who still has not condemned the murder of seven Israeli civilians outside a synagogue on Friday night — Blinken expressed his sorrow for the “innocent Palestinian civilians” killed over the past year in the West Bank.”
Hours later in Jerusalem, Blinken pledged that “the United States will continue to oppose anything that puts that goal [of a two-state solution] further from reach.” He then set out five moves that threaten such a vision, the first four of which are declared aims of the new coalition or its component parties — “settlement expansion, legalization of illegal outposts, moves toward annexation of the West Bank, disruptions to the historic status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, demolitions and evictions.”
The only blame he seemingly placed on the Palestinians was for “incitement and acquiescence to violence.”
Anxiety in Washington
Were Secretary Blinken’s repeated warnings an indication that the White House is truly spooked by what it sees unfolding in Israel?
Absolutely, say some experts. But not all.
“I wasn’t surprised,” said Eldad Shavit, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Jake Sullivan also spoke about this two weeks ago when he was here.”
Shavit pointed at three priorities the Biden administration emphasizes in its conversations with Israel — avoiding provocative actions, unilateral measures that damage the chances for a two-state solution, and the importance of protecting democratic values.
“These three issues worry the Americans deeply,” he said. “They have plenty of problems; they don’t want to be facing an escalation in the Middle East.”
In stark contrast, Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, saw Blinken’s focus on an ostensible threat to democracy as a pretext to make life uncomfortable for a leader Democratic party officials don’t care for.
“You really think they’re worried about our democracy?” he asked. “It’s total nonsense.”
“It’s a tool to bash Bibi,” he said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.
Eyes on Iran
Ultimately, however, Blinken’s message might indicate that at least some priorities in Washington and in Jerusalem are more closely aligned than they seem on the surface.
“The Blinken visit has been decontextualized,” said former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren. “It’s part of a procession of high-level American officials that have come here in the last week and a half,” he continued. And the issue at the heart of that procession of visits, he said, is not the judicial overhaul or the Palestinians. “It’s about Iran.”
In this framing, the White House, fed up with Iran’s protest crackdown and growing material support for Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian civilians, is increasingly open to cooperating with Israel in attacks on Iran’s drone production and nuclear program.
At the same time, to enable smooth cooperation in this regard, the US Administration is indeed asking Netanyahu to rein in elements of his government that will cause headaches for President Joe Biden.
The progressive wing of the Democratic party is already frustrated with Biden over the Palestinians. The president has not applied meaningful pressure on Israel over settlements, is not pushing any peace plan, and can’t even get its consulate to the Palestinians open.
The last thing Biden needs, in this telling, is Israel giving more excuses for members of his party that don’t like Israel in the first place to push him to reduce military and intelligence cooperation.
“We’re literally not seeing the forest for the trees,” said Oren. “We’re focusing on the Palestinians and we’re focusing on [judicial] reform. The big issue is Iran.”
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