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Longtime Israel backers in U.S. turn outraged critics — but Biden administration remains distant

A man holding up an Israeli flag does the splits on a highway in Tel Aviv as others sit during a protest
Demonstrators block a highway in Tel Aviv on March 18 during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul Israel’s judicial system.
(Ohad Zwigenberg / Associated Press)
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With massive street protests, a mutiny by elite military reserve officers and outrage from diplomats, academics and former officials, Israel seems steeped in epic crisis.

Shock waves over radical plans by the new right-wing Israeli government are also cascading thunderously in the U.S., alienating Jewish Americans while raising questions about the Biden administration’s ability — or willingness — to confront the troubles.

Israel’s figurehead President Isaac Herzog warned bluntly of civil war.

“The abyss is within touching distance,” Herzog said last week, making the bleak assessment after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a proposed compromise over his coalition’s efforts to weaken the Israeli Supreme Court and national judiciary.

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Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, wants to subjugate judges to politicians and make it easier
for members of the Knesset, or parliament, to overturn court decisions. But the debate now goes much deeper than the judiciary to the essence of democracy itself, critics say.

“This is not just a political crisis; this is an existential crisis,” Rabbi Noah Farkas, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said hours after returning from an urgent trip to Israel late last week.

Though both sides have legitimate grievances, he said, the questions being raised are starkly fundamental.

“What does Jewish mean? Zionist? What does being an Israeli mean?” Farkas said.

“This is a coup d’etat,” Alon Pinkas, who served as a senior foreign policy advisor in several Israeli administrations, said in an interview from his home in Tel Aviv. He and those who voice similar sentiment believe that the changes Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox and extreme nationalist ruling partners are planning would create a new form of government in Israel. It would be a regime changer, they say, creating something akin to a religious autocracy instead of the “Jewish and democratic state” that has long characterized how Israel legally defines itself.

The U.S. is so far empty-handed in dealing with Israel’s radical government and dysfunctional Palestinian leadership.

Feb. 13, 2023

To be sure, Israel’s democracy always came with an asterisk: Palestinians living in Israel or under Israeli occupation in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip do not have full equal rights. But for Israeli Jews, Israel’s democracy has been unique in the Middle East.

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Yet the government that came to office on Dec. 29 — after Israel’s fifth election in nearly four years — wants to undo many of the underpinnings of that democracy while also jettisoning the shared values that successive U.S. administrations have cited as the foundation for the so-called ironclad diplomatic, political and economic relationship between the two countries.

In addition to weakening the judiciary, members of the Netanyahu government want to expand Jewish settlements on land claimed by Palestinians; thwart a Palestinian state; take away rights for LGBTQ people and some minorities; favor ultra-Orthodox Jews over the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism that constitute the majority of U.S. Jews; and make the country more religious by eliminating some regulations that preserve its secular character.

The new government includes known extremists Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was convicted of inciting anti-Arab hate several years ago, and Bezalel Smotrich. Ben-Gvir is serving as security minister and Smotrich as finance minister, which gives him significant authority over the West Bank.

Since the coalition government was formed, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have filled the streets in Tel Aviv and other cities to protest. The demonstrations turned violent this month when police clashed with protesters in rare Israeli-on-Israeli confrontation.

Meanwhile, there has been an intense surge in bloodshed in Jerusalem and the West Bank, with regular Israeli military raids seeking militants in Palestinian cities, Palestinian attacks on civilian Israelis and vigilante Jewish settlers assaulting Palestinian civilians. It is the deadliest violence in years, and authorities on all sides are bracing for the coinciding holidays of Passover, Ramadan and Easter in the coming weeks.

On Tuesday, the Knesset voted to allow Jewish settlers back into a number of West Bank settlements that the Israeli government itself declared illegal and evacuated eight years ago. Some of the outposts were built on privately owned Palestinian land, the government said at the time. A U.S. State Department spokesman Tuesday said the Biden administration was “extremely troubled” about such a “particularly provocative” action, but did not announce any sanctions or punishment.

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The Knesset vote came a couple of days after Smotrich, who oversees civilian administration of the West Bank, said in widely condemned public remarks that there was “no such thing” as a Palestinian people, nation or history.

While the new Israeli government also roils the Palestinian relationship, the Netanyahu administration’s plans are a bridge too far for many Israelis and American Jews, including some who have long been Israel’s staunchest supporters. In addition to liberal pro-Israel organizations, critics now include more conservative groups and leaders, such as former president of the Anti-Defamation League Abraham Foxman, former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, lawyer Alan Dershowitz and prominent members of Congress.

Many have latched on to Herzog’s efforts at finding a compromise as way to urge a different path without appearing overly confrontational against Israel.

Visiting the Mideast, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken reiterates support for the two-state solution, even as its prospects seem to be vanishing.

Jan. 31, 2023

Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) led a group of 16 Jewish members of Congress in a letter to Netanyahu, Herzog and Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid to express “profound concern about proposed changes to Israel’s governing institutions and legal system” that could “undermine Israeli democracy and the civil rights and religious freedoms it protects.” The letter also urged the Israeli government “to suspend its efforts to pass the bills” that could “fundamentally change the democratic nature of the State of Israel.”

In another letter to President Biden, 91 Jewish and non-Jewish members of Congress urged the administration to take more forceful action to ease mounting tensions in Israel. They also noted the new government’s plans to expand settlements on land claimed by Palestinians and efforts to block an independent Palestinian state as additional combustible elements in the region.

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“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 members of Congress wrote.

So far, however, Biden administration officials have tread lightly in calling out events in Israel. After sticking to a wait-and-see approach even as the direction Israel was taking became clear, criticism for the most part has been couched in highly diplomatic language, urging a search for consensus while expressing wide support for Israel.

Biden reiterated these points Sunday in a telephone conversation with Netanyahu, the White House said.

The president “underscored his belief that democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship” and said that democratic societies need “genuine checks and balances” while “fundamental changes” must be based on the “broadest possible” popular support, the White House said.

In a highly unusual move involving a newly seated Israeli prime minister, Biden has yet to invite Netanyahu for an official visit to the White House. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken also refused to meet with Ben-Gvir during a recent trip to Israel, and a visit by Smotrich to Washington last week touched off protest rallies outside his hotel.

Also on Sunday, representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority held a security meeting in the Egyptian coastal city of Sharm el Sheikh, with Egyptian, Jordanian and U.S. officials present and aiming to reduce violence in Israel and the West Bank. It was the second such meeting in three weeks — previously such encounters had fallen by the wayside as security deteriorated in the occupied territories. It is not clear whether the talks will have any impact; some members of Netanyahu’s coalition have already dismissed them.

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The Biden administration’s reluctance to posit a sharper critique of the Israeli government’s controversial policies has bewildered many Israelis and American Jews, who say that, among world powers, only the U.S. can influence Israel.

“What is the U.S. doing to exert leadership and push the parties together?” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, who heads the liberal Washington-based advocacy group J Street, which promotes Israel-related issues. “Pursuing a solution very quietly behind the scenes does not meet the moment.”

Pinkas, the Israeli diplomat, said that he does not think the U.S. government has the responsibility to detour Israel from what he called its “authoritarian trajectory,” but that it is “negligent for the Americans to continue to act as if nothing is happening.”

Many U.S. politicians have been reluctant to criticize Israel for fear of losing support among Jewish voters. However, voting patterns by American Jews are fairly stable: Polling shows that most lean Democratic. The other large voting bloc that focuses on Israel is made up of white evangelicals, who lean Republican.

The angst throughout the American Jewish community is evident in newspaper columns, at think-tank symposiums and in synagogue webinars, with many dreading a pall on U.S.-Israel relations or further potential damage to Israel’s reputation in the world.

“A lot of American Jews have yet to understand the depth of the crisis,” said Farkas, the L.A. rabbi. “It is not translating well. The pain. The anger. The tears. They are slowly waking up to it.”

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Ben-Ami of J Street said that “for most American Jews, support of Israel is a critical part of their identity.”

“But if the center of Israeli society is walking away,” he continued, “what are American Jews going to do?”

Susie Gelman, who chairs the U.S.-based Israel Policy Forum, was among the speakers at the protest rally last week outside Smotrich’s Washington hotel, where participants demanded he not be received by U.S. officials.

“The racism, homophobia and extremism” that she said Smotrich represents “do not and must not represent the values of Israelis and the Jewish people worldwide.

“Israel’s future is closely linked to that of Jews in the United States and around the world,” Gelman added. “We must stand together with our Israeli family to fight for that future, now so greatly threatened by this extremist, right-wing government.”

Another rally participant, Dany Bahar, an international affairs professor at Brown University, highlighted the impact that the Israeli government’s actions could have on the country’s economy, which has been buoyed by a booming high-tech industry.

“What the enemies of Israel have not been able and won’t be able to ever achieve — to see an isolated and economically struggling Israel — is happening due to the actions of the current Israeli government,” he told the crowd. “Capital is flowing out of the country. Businesses and investors are questioning whether they will see return on their investments if the independence of the judiciary is jeopardized. This is a crisis of Israel’s own making.”

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