ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Top Democrats urge Biden to ‘use all diplomatic tools available’ to stop overhaul

Letter making rounds on the Hill also opposes West Bank annexation by Israel and supports creation of Palestinian state; 2 centrist, Jewish Democrats come out against initiative

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)
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)

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the top Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, is spearheading a letter from Democrats urging US President Joe Biden to “use all diplomatic tools available” to coax Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into halting his controversial legislation to sap the power of Israel’s top court.

The letter also opposes any potential Israeli annexation of West Bank territory and supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The signers express “our deep concern regarding the planned changes to the structure of the Israeli judiciary, the fragile security situation in the West Bank, and the threat of partial or full annexation of areas that would most certainly be part of a future Palestinian state,” according to a copy that the Jewish Telegraphic Agency obtained Wednesday before DeLauro’s deadline to obtain signatures. “We urge you to use all diplomatic tools available to prevent Israel’s current government from further damaging the nation’s democratic institutions and undermining the potential for two states for two peoples.”

The letter is notable for its alarmed tone. It also underscores Democratic concern at the direction of Netanyahu’s new governing coalition, which includes far-right politicians, and his plans to overhaul the country’s court system. The legislation being advanced by Netanyahu’s government would allow a majority of lawmakers to override Supreme Court decisions and would give the governing coalition full power over appointing the court’s judges. In the face of widespread protest of the plan, President Isaac Herzog is urging a compromise.

The letter also addresses escalating violence in the West Bank, singling out Palestinian terrorist attacks on civilians and retaliatory Israeli military raids. More than a dozen Israeli civilians have been killed in terror attacks, and at least 70 Palestinians have been killed. Israel says most of the Palestinians killed have been terror fighters, though a number of civilians have been killed as well, including a man who died during a riot by settlers in the Palestinian village of Huwara following a Palestinian terror attack last month.

“We are profoundly concerned that the recent violence and increased tensions could spiral into a major conflict, despite the recent steps taken,” the letter says. “US Central Intelligence Agency Director William J. Burns recently warned that Israel appears to be on the brink of confronting a third intifada.”

House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., fields questions about the politics of the federal debt in front of the House Rules Committee at the Capitol in Washington, September 21, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The letter also cites weeks of massive demonstrations in Israel against the planned judiciary reforms. It comes ahead of a visit to the United States by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right politician who is speaking on Sunday to Israel Bonds, which sells Israeli government bonds to investors abroad. Biden administration officials have said they will not meet with Smotrich.

DeLauro, who is from Connecticut, has long been close to the mainstream pro-Israel community, earning an endorsement last year from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s affiliated political action committee.

Among other senior Democrats signing the letter are Jewish members including Reps. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and David Cicilline of Rhode Island.

Not all Democrats were pleased with the letter. Reps. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Jared Moskowitz of Florida, who are both Jewish and more hawkish than most of the Democratic caucus, released a joint statement that did not directly address the letter, but that cautioned lawmakers not to interfere at this juncture in Israel’s internal debates.

“Regardless of our personal views and concerns, Congress should not publicly intervene in ongoing negotiations of a key democratic ally,” their statement said. “Doing so, especially in a partisan way, could undermine those negotiations toward a positive outcome.”

Earlier this week, Republican Senator Tom Cotton accused the Biden administration of seeking to undermine the Netanyahu government, pointing to grant money the State Department has been providing to the Movement for Quality Government, an organization that has been leading the protests against the judicial overhaul.

That funding began during the Trump administration though and the State Department says it goes specifically toward democracy training programs in Israeli schools.

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