The US Congress’s longest-serving Jewish member warned Wednesday that the proposals by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul Israel’s judiciary could “irrevocably strain” the Jewish state’s ties with the US, adding his name to a growing list of pro-Israel Democrats voicing their discomfort with the new hardline coalition in Jerusalem.
“I am particularly distressed about the latest reported plans of Israel’s new minister of justice to undermine the judiciary and the system of checks and balances,” wrote Rep. Jerry Nadler in an op-ed in the Haaretz daily.
Criticism of Netanyahu’s government on Capitol Hill has been growing since the coalition took power late last month, indicating that opposition to its policies extends beyond the progressive wing of the Democratic party, and risking the bipartisan support in Washington that Israel views as critical for its security and wellbeing.
Nadler, from New York, highlighted his Jewish background and his pro-Israel positions before warning that the proposals announced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin are reminiscent of the threats to America’s democracy that he has sought to combat in recent years as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The Netanyahu-backed overhaul calls for severely restricting the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, passing an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate such laws; 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.
“All of these proposals undermine the judiciary’s authority, which is fundamental to a functioning democracy,” Nadler wrote.
Rep. Brad Sherman, another longtime Jewish lawmaker, expressed similar concerns earlier this week in an interview with Haaretz. “Because I’m part of the US government, I’m a little reluctant to say what exact structure of government Israel should have. But to the extent I have an opinion, judicial review is a good idea. It’s good to have basic democratic principles and a Supreme Court that can make sure you adhere to them.”
The California congressman said that the new coalition’s problem is more foundational than one particular policy agenda. “Before the current government does anything, just the makeup of that government is corrosive to support in the Democratic caucus,” he said. He did not name any member in particular, but before Israel’s November election, Sherman issued a tweet warning Israel against electing “extremists” like Otzma Yehudit party chairman Itamar Ben Gvir.
That message was echoed by Sen. Bob Menendez, another longtime pro-Israel Democrat, who privately warned Netanyahu before the election against empowering Ben Gvir or far-right Religious Zionism chair Bezalel Smotrich. Both have a long history of remarks and positions against Arab Israelis, Palestinians, LGBTQ individuals and Reform Jews.
Netanyahu tapped Smotrich and Ben Gvir for prominent roles in his government, as finance minister and national security minister respectively. Smotrich, who backs annexing large parts of the West Bank without granting equal rights to Palestinians in those areas, has also been given a Defense Ministry role responsible for settler policy in the West Bank. Smotrich and Ben Gvir ran on a joint slate with the anti-LGBTQ Noam faction, whose leader Avi Maoz was named deputy minister in Netanyahu’s office in charge of external informal education programs at schools.
Discomfort with such coalition partners has extended further down the line of the Jewish caucus on Capitol Hill. Sen. Jacky Rosen, informed the Foreign Ministry that she did not want the congressional delegation to the region that she co-led last week meeting with any members of Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s parties — a request that could set a precedent for future visits by US officials.
The Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA), a pro-Israel group that is typically more careful about expressing criticism of Israel than some of its other left-leaning counterparts such as J Street, also sounded off an alarm last week.
“We stand with Israelis who are concerned about extremist members of the current Israeli government. Their bigoted statements, and the policies they espouse, run counter to our shared values. We urge the new Israeli coalition to remain true to these values, including the defense of democracy and minority rights, and stand with the tens of thousands of Israelis protesting policies of the new government inconsistent with those values,” the group said in a statement.
JDCA clarified that it recognizes the threats Israel faces and will continue to back US security assistance to the Jewish state. “At the same time, in the spirit of that close relationship and with recognition of Israel’s security concerns, it is entirely appropriate for any American, including lawmakers, to express concern about the policies, rhetoric, or actions of the new Israeli government with which they disagree, including those that run counter to our shared democratic values or jeopardize prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”