White House laments unilateral passage of overhaul bill, as Democrats echo alarm

Press secretary stresses Biden’s call for consensus, backs Herzog’s compromise efforts; progressive US lawmakers blast Knesset for curbing judiciary; Germany voices ‘great concern’

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

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)
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)

The White House expressed its dismay over the passing of the first piece of judicial overhaul legislation by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition on Monday and urged authorities not to molest protesters.

״As a lifelong friend of Israel, [US President Joe] Biden has publicly and privately expressed his views that for major changes in a democracy to be enduring, they must have as broad a consensus as possible,” said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a statement.

Netanyahu had assured the Biden administration in recent months that he was working to secure broad support for the reforms his government is seeking to pass, but decided last month to move forward with the controversial legislation after negotiations with the opposition broke down.

Biden made a last-ditch plea on Sunday, again urging Netanyahu not to advance such a divisive bill removing judicial oversight over the reasonableness of governmental and ministerial decisions, but the coalition moved ahead anyway, passing the legislation 64-0, as the entire opposition boycotted the vote.

“It is unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority,” Jean-Pierre said in her Monday statement. In fact, 61 MKs would have made up the slimmest possible majority in the 120-MK Knesset.

“We understand talks are ongoing and likely to continue over the coming weeks and months to forge a broader compromise even with the Knesset in recess. The United States will continue to support the efforts of President Isaac Herzog and other Israeli leaders as they seek to build a broader consensus through political dialogue,” the White House press secretary added.

President Joe Biden and Israel’s President Isaac Herzog speak in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, July 18, 2023. (Chris Kleponis)

Later, as police attempted to clear protesters off the Ayalon freeway, a National Security Council spokesperson said in response to a query that “It is clear there is significant debate and discussion in Israel on judicial reform.  Such debates are a healthy part of a vibrant democracy. We urge authorities to protect and respect the right of peaceful assembly.”

A handful of Democratic lawmakers also issued condemnations, and their number expanded as the day progressed.

“Legitimate checks and balances are essential in all democracies. The Knesset vote today for a law stripping the Israeli Supreme Court of its power to block government decisions is contrary to democratic values. I implore Netanyahu to support the core values that have enabled Israel to flourish and grow,” tweeted Sen. Ben Cardin, who is retiring next year.

Sen. Chris Murphy said he was “deeply disappointed” by the coalition’s decision to move ahead with Monday’s vote despite “historic and unprecedented protests.”

“It is clear that the people of Israel remain deeply divided on this latest step to undercut the ability of the judiciary to review government decisions, and many believe it puts the future of their economy, national security, and democracy at risk,” Murphy continued.

“While this is an internal matter for Israel to resolve, our bilateral relationship has always been grounded in shared democratic values and I remain concerned by the path Prime Minister Netanyahu is leading his country down,” he added.

Rep. Jerry Nadler wrote in a statement that Netanyahu and “his extremist coalition disregarded the president’s and the Israeli people’s call for consensus… [and] passed legislation that desecrates judicial independence. It is a dark day for Israeli democracy.”

“Despite these challenges, as the peaceful demonstrators across Israel and the United States have made clear, the hope among Israelis and the Diaspora community that inspired Israel’s founding and its prosperity nonetheless persists. Today’s deeply disappointing vote in the Knesset need not mark an ending, but rather an opportunity to renew that hope and continue fighting for a democratic Israel,” Nadler added.

Rep. Dan Goldman from New York tweeted that “As a pro-Israel Jew, I am deeply disappointed to see the passage of the first step of the anti-democratic judicial overhaul plan. Israel’s government should heed the voice of its citizens, aim to find consensus, and reaffirm a commitment to the checks and balances of democracy.”

Rep. Madeline Dean wrote, “Israel must maintain its democracy — which means preserving an independent judiciary. Today’s vote in the Knesset is a step away from democratic values.

In a statement Biden issued a day earlier, he said, “From the perspective of Israel’s friends in the United States, it looks like the current judicial reform proposal is becoming more divisive, not less.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant during a vote on the so-called reasonableness bill at the Knesset, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this — the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus,” the US president said.

Last week, Biden issued a statement to The New York Times in which he said, “This is obviously an area about which Israelis have strong views, including in an enduring protest movement that is demonstrating the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, which must remain the core of our bilateral relationship.”

“Finding consensus on controversial areas of policy means taking the time you need,” he continued. “For significant changes, that’s essential. So my recommendation to Israeli leaders is not to rush. I believe the best outcome is to continue to seek the broadest possible consensus here.”

But Netanyahu did not alter course and told Biden in a phone call a day before the president gave the statement to The New York Times that the opposition is not interested in compromise and that he would be going ahead with the legislation curtailing judicial review without the broad consensus he once assured Washington that he would secure. The Israeli premier told Biden, however, that he would seek more widespread support for subsequent parts of the overhaul, which would be passed later this year.

It took until last week’s phone call for Biden to agree to meet with Netanyahu, following seven months of refraining from such a sit-down due to the administration’s ongoing displeasure with the judicial overhaul plans and Jerusalem’s policies in the West Bank.

The US was not the only country to voice concern Monday.

Germany said it was following the tensions with “great concern,” a source in Berlin’s foreign ministry said.

“Out of deep solidarity with Israel and its people, we look with great concern at the deepening tensions in Israeli society,” the source said, adding Berlin invited the Israeli government to take action which might yet produce “consensus” on the thorny issue.

“Especially after today’s adoption of the first part of the planned judicial reform, it remains important that a broad social debate be given sufficient time and space to enable a new consensus,” the source said. “All sides, especially the government, must contribute to this.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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