Diplomatically but firmly, Blinken advises Netanyahu not to harm Israeli democracy

In shadow of judicial overhaul plan, secretary reminds his host US-Israel ties have always been rooted in shared values, including protecting minority rights and justice for all

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a press conference in Jerusalem on January 30, 2023. (Debbie HIll/Pool/AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a press conference in Jerusalem on January 30, 2023. (Debbie HIll/Pool/AFP)

With the prime minister at his side, visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday issued a diplomatic, but unmistakable and highly detailed call to Benjamin Netanyahu to maintain Israel’s vibrant democracy and to reconsider the radical terms of the judicial overhaul that threatens it.

If some had thought that the secretary would opt to gloss over the overhaul package — which would give almost unlimited power in Israel to the political majority, and largely prevent the High Court from serving as an independent and capable brake on government abuse — the final passages of Blinken’s public remarks in Jerusalem underlined that the US administration regards the proposed changes as anything but an internal Israeli affair. Rather, he made clear, Israel’s democratic essence is central to the bilateral relationship.

Blinken had already mentioned the importance of Israeli democracy earlier in his short speech, when he highlighted the US’s belief that moving away from “the vision of two states” for Israelis and Palestinians is “detrimental to Israel’s long-term security and its long-term identity as a Jewish and democratic state.”

But that was a minor opening salvo compared to what followed soon after.

Blinken pointed out that not only “shared interests” but also “shared values” are at the heart of US-Israel ties, and always have been: “Throughout the relationship between our countries,” he said, “what we come back to time and again is that it is rooted both in shared interests and in shared values.”

And then he got specific, unleashing a rapid-fire list of those essential, long-shared 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.”

Just in case anybody had missed the point, Blinken then observed, in a clear reference to the demonstrations and letters of alarm that have greeted the overhaul proposals, “And the vibrancy of Israel’s civil society has been on full display of late.”

Having made crystal clear that Israel upholding democratic principles is crucial to the bilateral relationship, Blinken moved on to offer advice. “The commitment of people in both our countries to make their voices heard, to defend their rights, is one of the unique strengths of our democracies,” he said. “Another is a recognition that building consensus for new proposals is the most effective way to ensure they’re embraced, and that they endure.”

Put less diplomatically, that amounted to a call to Netanyahu not to try to blitz the overhaul package through the parliament in a matter of weeks, ignoring and steamrolling over the opposition of non-coalition parties, much of the public, economists, bankers, academics, artists, et al, as the coalition has made plain it intends to do. Instead, the secretary was encouraging the prime minister to engage in the kind of careful, patient discussion that is manifestly required if a genuine effort is being made to adjust the delicate balance of power between the executive and judicial branches of governance.

Wrapping up this passage of unsolicited guidance, Blinken took care to present it not as heavy-handed criticism but as the kind of constructive input that warm allies sometimes need to provide when one of them is in danger of straying from the path of both national and bilateral interest.

“Our fellow democracies can also make us stronger,” Blinken stressed. “That’s what the United States and Israel have done for each other over many decades — by holding ourselves to the mutual standards we’ve established, and by speaking frankly and respectfully, as friends do, when we agree and when we do not.”

Blinken concluded by assuring the watching world, notwithstanding everything he had just said, that he was confident his host would not take Israel down the road to democratic ruin: “The discussion that the prime minister and I had today was no exception. That conversation will continue, including with other members of Israel’s government and civil society, as part of a perpetual process to defend and bolster the pillars of our democracy, which we are both committed to.”

(In his own remarks, before Blinken’s, Netanyahu had indeed exuded a reassurance his domestic critics deeply mistrust: “We share common values,” he told the secretary. “Two strong democracies which will remain, I assure you, two strong democracies.”)

This was not a directive, then, from Israel’s superpower friend, nor a blunt condition for the maintenance of the alliance, but it was certainly a pointed reminder that the intimate bilateral partnership has always been “rooted” on the assumption that Israel was, is and will be a trusted democratic partner to the United States.

Left unsaid was the unmissable conclusion: if Israel is no longer to be a vibrant democratic nation — with that aforementioned “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” — it simply won’t have the same partnership with its most essential ally.

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