Coalition officials on Sunday vehemently rejected US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides’s call for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to “pump the brakes” on its push to radically transform the judicial system, as opposition leader Yair Lapid warned the Jewish state was “losing” American support.
The American envoy’s remarks against the current form of the judicial overhaul, made during a podcast interview last week, were the most forceful yet by the Biden administration, which has increasingly spoken out over the past month against the right-religious coalition’s efforts to severely weaken the judiciary.
Nides said that “the one thing that binds our countries together is a sense of democracy and a sense of [the importance of] democratic institutions,” and indicated these institutions were now under threat.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in comments possibly aimed at Nides, said Sunday morning at the start of a cabinet meeting he wanted “to calm our friends. Israel is and will remain a strong and vibrant democracy.”
MK Simcha Rothman of the far-right Religious Zionism party, a key leader of the overhaul efforts who heads the Knesset panel shepherding the legislation to curb the judiciary’s powers, asserted Nides could not articulate his opposition to the bill if pressed.
“If you bring on the American ambassador…and tell him, ‘Please explain to us reasonably why it’s so frightening for Israel’s elected officials to choose their judges like every other democracy in the world,’ he’d stammer,” Rothman told Army Radio. (Elected officials are currently significantly involved in the judge selection process as part of the Judicial Selection Committee, whose makeup enables sitting judges as well as the coalition to veto any candidate, thus forcing consensus choices. Rothman wishes to give the coalition complete control.)
Rothman also pushed back against Nides’s entreaty in an earlier interview with the Ynet news site.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to interfere in the internal matters of any country,” Rothman said. “I don’t think it is legitimate in Israel, and definitely not in the US, to say this endangers the country.”
A minister in Netanyahu’s Likud party accused Nides of butting in on a matter that doesn’t concern him.
“Pump the brakes yourself and mind your own business,” Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli told Kan public radio.
Chikli said he was happy to discuss diplomatic and security issues with Nides, “but respect our democracy.”
“I think the ties with the United States are important,” he said. “I think the comment by Nides is very problematic.”
National Missions Minister Orit Strock called the remarks by Nides “bizarre” and appeared to suggest someone had encouraged him to make them.
“It seems that whoever promoted it did so in an attempt to add him, the ambassador of the United States, to the ranks of left-wing demonstrators,” Strock, a member of Religious Zionism, said during an interview with Army Radio.
Likud MK Boaz Bismuth similarly insinuated that the comment had been “fed” to Nides.
“The US is fed by information passed to it, by the [opposition leaders], and it horrifies me to think they were once in [leadership] roles,” Bismuth told Radio 103 FM.
Fellow Likud MK Dan Illouz said Nides was “out of line.”
“Friends do not interfere in each other’s internal issues. Israel and only Israel will determine its future,” Illouz tweeted. “We will keep working to strengthen Israel’s democracy. If anything, the world should applaud us for that.”
Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposals would grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including Supreme Court justices; severely limit the High Court of Justice’s ability to strike down legislation; and allow the Knesset to re-legislate laws the court does manage to annul with a majority of just 61 of the Knesset’s 120 MKs.
Lapid, meanwhile, said US officials who frequently speak with him are “horrified” by the proposed shakeup of the judiciary and warned Israel “is losing the United States.”
The opposition chief, who heads the Yesh Atid party, rejected the idea that Nides was unduly intervening in Israel’s affairs.
“We ask the US to intervene daily,” Lapid said in an interview with Kan, noting Israel’s heavy dependence on US military aid. “The societies are based on common democratic values and if we don’t hold firm to them, the societies will end.”
He also repeated his call for the coalition to immediately pause the overhaul legislation to allow for talks aimed at reaching a consensus on judicial reform.
“You don’t negotiate when a gun is to your temple,” Lapid said, rejecting talks so long as the bills keep moving forward.
Former diaspora minister Nachman Shai, Chikli’s predecessor, slammed coalition members for their criticism of Nides.
“The US is placing a mirror in front of Israel and inviting it to look. Ministers and MKs who are attacking Ambassador Nides are invited to the [UN] Security Council meeting tomorrow,” Shai wrote on Twitter, referring to a planned vote on a measure calling for Israel to immediately halt all activity in the West Bank.
“Who exactly is supposed to veto the resolution against Israel?” he asked.
In the podcast interview, Nides also offered frank comments about the attention Netanyahu is giving to the warnings from economists against his government’s planned judicial overhaul, US efforts to advance measures to improve Palestinian livelihood in lieu of a major US peace initiative, and the administration’s frustration with Israel over settlement activity. The envoy also expressed his concerns about the deadly cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Jacob Magid contributed to this report.