US says Israel’s ‘independent institutions crucial’ amid judicial overhaul plans

State Department seems to imply Netanyahu government’s recently announced plan could threaten country’s ‘thriving democracy’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Placards blaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for political violence and likening him, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and their government to Nazis, brandished at a Tel Aviv political protest, January 7, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Placards blaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for political violence and likening him, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and their government to Nazis, brandished at a Tel Aviv political protest, January 7, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Biden administration over the weekend appeared to offer criticism of the planned overhaul to Israel’s legal system recently announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

“As a general matter, Israel’s independent institutions are crucial to upholding the country’s thriving democracy, and our shared democratic values are at the heart of our bilateral relationship,” read a statement from the US State Department that was distributed to reporters who requested comment on the matter.

Last week, two US officials told The Times of Israel that the Biden administration was not currently planning to pressure Netanyahu against implementing the reforms announced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

The overhaul provides 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.

“We’re not going to get into internal issues over there,” one of the US officials told The Times of Israel, while recognizing that the planned reforms could have massive implications, as 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.

Left: US President Joe Biden speaks about Russia in the East Room of the White House, April 15, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik); Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a memorial ceremony for fallen soldiers at the Yad LeBanim House on the eve of Memorial Day, in Jerusalem, April 13, 2021. (Debbie Hill/Pool Photo via AP)

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 State Department’s general statement appeared to confirm that speculation.

Biden officials have spent considerable time commiserating over how they will work with the new Israeli government, which is the most right-wing in the country’s history and appears to be starkly at odds with their effort to preserve prospects for a two-state solution, in light of the coalition’s desire to significantly expand Jewish presence in the West Bank.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is slated to visit Israel next week for meetings with senior officials in Netanyahu’s government in order to get a better understanding of Jerusalem’s plans moving forward. Sullivan told NPR on Friday that “the first thing that I intend to convey [during the visit] is the fact that the United States is absolutely committed to Israel’s security, and that’s not going to change. President Biden has been a fundamental and stalwart supporter of the State of Israel for as long as he’s been in public service.”

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, September 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“Second, we’re going to talk through the challenges and opportunities in the Middle East region. There are significant challenges, including the threat posed by Iran. On the other hand, there are real opportunities, including what we’ve seen in the deepening normalization between Israel and some of the Arab states,” Sullivan said. “We want to seize those opportunities for deepening integration between Israel and its neighbors.”

He added that the Biden administration will “continue to support the two-state solution, and we will oppose policies and practices that undermine the viability of the two-state solution or that cut hard against the historic status quo in Jerusalem. And I will be clear and direct on those points.”

An official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel last week that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken may follow up Sullivan’s visit with a trip of his own to Israel next month, which could lay the groundwork for a subsequent visit by Netanyahu to Washington.

The Walla news site reported that Intelligence Minister Ron Dermer landed in Washington on Monday for meetings with White House and State Department officials. Dermer, who is one of Netanyahu’s closest confidants and previously served as Israel’s ambassador to the US, has reportedly been tapped as the government’s point man on matters pertaining to the Biden administration. He is expected to discuss the Iran’s nuclear pursuit, Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians, and efforts to expand Israel’s integration in the Middle East.

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