US not planning to pressure Israel to call off legal overhaul
Biden officials recognize reforms will have major implications, including on Palestinian issue, but say they’re trying to limit scope of what they speak out about
Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent
The Biden administration is not currently planning to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government against implementing a recently announced overhaul to Israel’s legal system, two US officials told The Times of Israel this week.
“We’re not going to get into internal issues over there,” one of the officials said, while recognizing that the planned reforms could have massive implications, given that the High Court of Justice, whose power the new government is seeking to curtail, weighs in regularly on Israel’s conduct with regard to the Palestinians.
The official also acknowledged that the approach could change when more details about the legal reforms are unveiled, but said that for now, the administration is saving its voice for speaking out on issues that more directly relate to its effort to preserve prospects for a two-state solution and maintain calm in Jerusalem.
A second US official confirmed the approach but declined to comment further.
A source familiar with the matter speculated that the administration may offer vague support for the importance of a strong judiciary if journalists ask the US to comment on the matter, but that the policy would not extend much further.
The White House declined a request to comment on the matter.
The US has spoken out several times since the new government was sworn in a week ago, congratulating Netanyahu and expressing a desire to work with him to strengthen US-Israel ties, while warning that Washington will hold him accountable for the actions of his far-right partners. Biden administration officials have repeatedly expressed their support for a two-state solution, pledging to oppose steps that undermine that paradigm.
On Tuesday, several officials issued condemnations of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit to Jerusalem’s flashpoint Temple Mount, and on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price panned Israeli efforts to legalize the wildcat Homesh outpost in the West Bank that was built on private Palestinian land.
But the planned legal reforms, laid out on Wednesday by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, may have the greatest impact on the country’s future.
Levin specified change in four core areas: Restricting the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, by requiring a panel of all the court’s 15 judges and a “special majority” to do so, and including an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate such laws; changing the process for choosing judges, to give the government of the day effective control of the selection panel; 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 Justice Ministry aegis.
Critics warn the planned moves will remove the judiciary’s role as a check on the power of the ruling majority. Proponents argue that court rulings overturning legislation or government decisions subvert the will of Israeli voters.