Netanyahu swats away Nides’ criticism, says he expects ‘respect’ from democracies

Speaking to American Jewish leaders about the coalition’s judicial shakeup, US ambassador stresses, ‘I didn’t say put the brakes on, I said pump the brakes… slow down’

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem on February 19, 2023. (Amit Elkayam)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem on February 19, 2023. (Amit Elkayam)

With a wave of American officials cautioning against his government’s march toward remaking Israel’s judiciary, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told visiting American Jewish leaders on Sunday that, despite criticism of the plans, the Jewish state will remain democratic and its internal reforms should be respected.

“Israel is a democracy and will remain a democracy, with majority rule and proper safeguards for civil liberties,” Netanyahu told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at their annual mission event in Jerusalem.

“All democracies should respect the will of other free peoples, just like we respect their democratic decisions,” the premier added, in comments seemingly alluding to US Ambassador Tom Nides, who said that Israel should “pump the brakes” on its contentious plans to concentrate power in the hands of the executive branch at the expense of the judiciary.

The premier also denounced rhetoric deemed inciting, including to political violence, which has drawn warnings from Israel’s police commissioner and the cabinet.

Despite highlighting the threat, Netanyahu asserted, “We are one people, with one destiny, with one country, one faith,” adding, “If you’re waiting for civil war, it ain’t going to happen.”

Netanyahu also said he would liked to have told the Jewish leaders more about the legal overhaul but explained that he was constrained by a “ridiculous… gag order” — a reference to the 2020 conflict of interest agreement that allows him to continue to serve as prime minister while on trial, but not to deal with matters that might affect the trial.

Nides, who took the Conference of Presidents stage right before Netanyahu, reiterated his headline-catching comments, while stressing he did not call for the judicial overhaul to stop altogether.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides speaks to the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem on February 19, 2023. (Amit Elkayam)

“I didn’t say put the brakes on, I said pump the brakes… slow down,” he said,

“On occasion, we express some views… I said, you know, we believe in building some consensus,” he said, noting that President Isaac Herzog had made similar pleas. However, “I’m not involved in how Israelis pick their Supreme Court,” Nides added. “This is a vibrant, vibrant democracy.”

Speaking just as news broke that the US successfully convinced the Palestinian Authority to pull its UN Security Council complaint against Israeli settlement authorizations, expected for Monday, Nides stressed that what “binds us together is this love of democracies, this love of institutions,” and that is is “what enables us to defend Israel in the UN, time and time again, which we will continue to do.”

In Israel, a contentious vote remains pending for Monday, with Netanyahu’s coalition slated to bring its leading judicial reform bill for its first reading on the Knesset floor. Netanyahu, currently under what he called a “gag order” to prevent him from discussing judicial reform, in line with the conflict of interest agreement tied to his ongoing corruption trial, has said previously that the reform will “rebalance” power between elected representatives and the judiciary.

Critics attack the overhaul as a mortal danger for Israeli democracy, in that it would remove checks on political power and prioritize majority rule over protection for civil liberties.

Regarding Netanyahu, Nides said: “I don’t question his goals, or anyone in his coalition’s goals. They all want democracy; they all want the same thing.”

Although the judicial overhaul has held much of the attention of Netanyahu’s nascent government, the premier has been consistently clear that he also has two key international priorities: expanding the Abraham Accords to include a relationship with Saudi Arabia and curbing the Iranian nuclear threat.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides speaks to the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem on February 19, 2023. (Amit Elkayam)

Reaffirming that his government is actively working toward a peace deal with Saudi Arabia, as was reported on Friday by Bloomberg, Netanyahu said that achieving an accord with the leading Sunni Arab power would be a diplomatic “quantum leap.”

Netanyahu predicted that establishing warm relations with Riyadh would change Israel’s relationship with the rest of the Arab world, bring about the “effective ending of Israeli-Arab, not Palestinian, conflict,” and could normalize Israel’s relationship with the broader Muslim world.

Netanyahu also shared his dream of an infrastructure project linking the Arabian peninsula to the Haifa port, via a railway or oil pipeline running through Jordan.

Turning to Tehran’s nuclear aspirations, the premier said, “If Iran achieves its goals of reaching nuclear weapons, it puts the future of Israel at risk, it puts the future of world peace at risk. There has been a growing understanding among the world leaders, and a growing understanding between the US and Israel of the dangers of Iran.”

He added that “Israel will do what it has to do to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”

Nides, in his comments, confirmed that the Iran nuclear deal, which the US withdrew from in 2018, remains on ice, as the US will not indirectly negotiate with Iran while the Islamic republic supplies Russia with drones for use in the war in Ukraine.

A local resident sits outside a building destroyed by Russian, Iranian-made, drones after an airstrike on Bila Tserkva, southwest of Kyiv, on October 5, 2022, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

“The Iranians are providing drones to Russia and those drones are killing innocent Ukrainians. There is no chance today of us going back to the negotiating table,” Nides said.

“As President Biden has said, we will not stand by and watch Iran get a nuclear weapon, number one. Number two, he said, all options are on the table. Number three, Israel can and should do whatever they need to deal with and we’ve got their back,” Nides added.

“The threat of a nuclear Iran is not just for Israel, it is for the Middle East and America. We are focused on this,” continued the ambassador. “The cooperation between Israel and the US vis-à-vis Iran is lockstep, every day.”

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