In knock at government, US urges Israel to protect anti-overhaul protesters

White House hails debate over judicial reforms as a ‘healthy part of a vibrant democracy’ while again warning that they shouldn’t be passed without broad consensus

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

A horse tramples a man at a protest against the judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
A horse tramples a man at a protest against the judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The Biden administration urged Israeli authorities to “protect and respect the right of peaceful assembly” in a statement issued as police clashed with thousands of protesters across the country in Tuesday demonstrations against the government advancement of the first piece of legislation aimed at overhauling the judiciary.

While it didn’t go as far, the White House National Security Council (NSC) statement sent to querying reporters appeared similar to some of the responses the US has issued regarding crackdowns on protests by authoritarian regimes around the globe.

The statement was one of two issued by the White House in a matter of hours regarding the overhaul, as the Biden administration intensified its rhetoric against the government’s conduct on the matter in response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition’s decision to advance the far-reaching package.

The White House comments were issued as police clashed with demonstrators who had gathered in the tens of thousands at roughly 100 locations across the country. Around a dozen demonstrators were injured along with at least one officer, as police worked to prevent protesters from blocking roads.

At least one protester was trampled by a police horse. Another injured protester, 72-year-old military veteran Moli Ahronsohn, sustained a broken knee and a deep cut to his eye socket by a mounted police horse. He was hospitalized ahead of surgery scheduled for Wednesday.

A number of protesters were injured by high-pressured streams fired by water cannons at main demonstrations, including a woman who was hit in the head on the highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Police were also seen manhandling, and on a number of occasions, hitting protesters.

There still appeared to be relatively few injuries throughout the day, which made the decision by the White House to weigh in on the matter all the more noteworthy.

“We urge authorities to protect and respect the right of peaceful assembly,” the statement attributed to a White House NSC spokesperson said, as hundreds of anti-overhaul demonstrators rallied outside the US Embassy’s branch office in Tel Aviv along with dozens of other locations on Tuesday afternoon.

“It is clear there is significant debate and discussion in Israel on the proposed plan. Such debates are a healthy part of a vibrant democracy,” it added in an apparent effort to present a positive spin on the crisis.

The White House NSC later issued a separate response to querying reporters regarding the legislation that was advanced through a first reading early Tuesday morning that will block judicial review of the “reasonableness” of elected officials’ decisions.

It was largely a regurgitation of previous US statements on the overhaul, which have sought to avoid coming off as an intervention in domestic affairs while stressing the importance of maintaining Israel’s democratic institutions by only adopting reforms that have broad support.

“As the administration has said, both US and Israeli democracy are built on strong institutions, checks and balances, and an independent judiciary,” the second White House statement read.

“President [Joe Biden] has said consistently, both privately and publicly, that fundamental reforms like this require a broad basis of support to be durable and sustained.”

“The president has been clear he hopes Prime Minister Netanyahu will work to find a genuine compromise,” the statement continued. “We continue to urge a consensus-based approach towards judicial reform, a point the president underscored again this past weekend.”

On Sunday, Biden told CNN that he hoped Netanyahu would “continue to move toward moderation in changing the court.”

He also knocked the Israeli government as “one of the most extreme” that he’s ever seen, pointing to members who support unrestricted settlement growth and deny any Palestinian right to the territory in conflict.

The judicial overhaul has inspired months of massive protests, with critics warning that it will effectively snuff out Israel’s democratic system of checks and balances by concentrating power in government hands.

Despite clashing with the Biden administration on several matters, Netanyahu has shown himself to be sensitive to US criticism, and his government’s decision to alter the proposed legislation and pass it piecemeal may have been aimed at swatting away potential White House brickbats.

Before Netanyahu agreed to pause the overhaul in late March in order to allow for talks with the opposition, the Biden administration had been gradually raising its voice against the package, noting that the countries’ shared commitment to strong democratic institutions is what has helped bolster their bilateral relationship for so many decades.

The criticism has come from just about all corners of the Biden administration.

Departing US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides told the Wall Street Journal on Monday that the US is working to prevent Israel from “going off the rails” with the overhaul push.

Last month, US Vice President Kamala Harris made a point of stressing the importance of an independent judiciary during a speech at an event hosted by the Israeli embassy in Washington.

In late March, Biden said Netanyahu would not be receiving an invite to the White House in the “near term” due to Washington’s displeasure with the direction the prime minister is taking the country.

The repeated US censures have sparked anger in Jerusalem with Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli alleging without proof on Tuesday that they have been coordinated with opposition Leader Yair Lapid and former prime minister Ehud Barak.

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