Nides: US working to stop Israel from ‘going off the rails’ with judicial overhaul

In interview with Wall Street Journal, departing US envoy says he told Netanyahu to ‘tap the brakes, slow down’ efforts to remake judiciary, and to seek broad consensus

US Ambassador to Israel Thomas R. Nides, right, speaks at the annual National Leadership Mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem, February 19, 2023. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo/File)
US Ambassador to Israel Thomas R. Nides, right, speaks at the annual National Leadership Mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem, February 19, 2023. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo/File)

Departing US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said the Biden administration is working to prevent Israel from “going off the rails” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline expedites its judicial overhaul push, in light of widespread opposition and intensifying anti-government protests.

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal in an interview published Monday ahead of his departure from the role of US envoy this week, Nides said he thinks “Israelis want the United States to be in their business. With that sometimes comes a modicum of a price, which is articulating when we think things are going off the rails.”

Nides said he has told Netanyahu “to tap the brakes, slow down” with the legislative package in order to build broad consensus for the measures, and warned him against “rushing things through that ultimately could have huge implications, at least perception-wise, about what makes Israel great.”

The US has been vocal about its alarm over Jerusalem’s moves to remake the judiciary and other policy pursuits, like settlement expansion, since Netanyahu’s coalition took power in December.

Last month, the White House expressed alarm over the sway the right wing of Netanyahu’s coalition has over policy, especially settlements and judicial reform with three Biden administration officials acknowledging to The Times of Israel that Washington is not convinced the longtime Likud leader is in control.

US President Joe Biden told reporters in late March that Netanyahu would not be coming to Washington in the “near term,” given US frustration over the judicial overhaul efforts. And on Sunday, Biden said Netanyahu’s coalition has some “of the most extreme members” he has seen in Israel.

File: US President Joe Biden meets then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (right) at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. At left is Secretary of State Antony Blinken; 2nd-left is US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. (GPO)

Later Monday, the Knesset is expected to approve the first reading of a bill outlawing the use of the “reasonableness” doctrine to review decisions made by the cabinet, government ministers and other elected officials. If it clears, as it is expected to do easily, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, headed by Simcha Rothman of the far-right Religious Zionism party, will likely convene to prepare the bill for its second and third (and final readings) as soon as this week.

The bill is being rushed through the legislative process in order to be finalized into law by the close of the Knesset’s summer session on July 30.

Reasonableness is a judicial test that allows courts to strike down government and administrative decisions that are seen as having not taken into account all the relevant considerations of a particular issue, or having not given the correct weight to those considerations — even if they do not violate any particular law or contradict other administrative rulings.

Proponents of limiting the courts’ use of the reasonableness doctrine say that it has enabled rule by judiciary. Critics say the test is a vital bulwark against government abuse.

The bill is part of a contentious legislative package first proposed in January by Justice Minister Yariv Levin that critics say will weaken the independence of Israel’s judiciary.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Justice Minister Yariv Levin at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 7, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

In his Wall Street Journal interview, Nides reflected on his nearly two years as US ambassador to Israel, representing an administration that did not push for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“I did not come here to negotiate a two-state solution. I came here to do practical things,” Nides said, adding that he is not getting a Nobel Peace Prize in the next seven days. “But I do think I can look back and say that I’ve done things that have made life just a little bit easier and better for the average Palestinian.”

Among his initiatives, he listed the extension of the opening hours of the Allenby crossing between the West Bank and Jordan for more freedom of movement, and the expansion of 4G cellular coverage to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, who currently are only granted 2G and 3G service respectively. This plan has moved slowly and is still in the works.

Nides has also worked to secure funds from several Arab countries for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network that were pledged last year. The US announced $100 million of its own funding during Biden’s visit, and said the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia would be matching that sum with $25 million each. Since then, only the UAE has followed through with its donation.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, center, at the Allenby crossing on April 2, 2023. (Jeries Mansour, US Office of Palestinian Affairs)

The outgoing ambassador has also worked to get a power plant in the northern West Bank city of Jenin up and running, after years of preparation, and has expressed his hope that it would be ready to provide nearly 50 percent of electricity for Palestinians by the end of the year.

Last month, progress appeared to have been made on another Nides’ projects, namely a proposal to develop a natural gas field off the coast of the Gaza Strip, an initiative that has been repeatedly floated for decades.

In mid-June, Netanyahu’s office said it would move ahead with the proposal and declared it as part of a “framework of existing efforts” between Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to develop the “Gaza Marine gas field off the coast of Gaza.”

The move was seen as an olive branch to the Palestinians and, if finalized, is expected to bring in billions of shekels to the PA. The PMO said it was pursuing the plan with an emphasis “on Palestinian economic development and maintaining security stability in the region.”

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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