Feb 1, 2023 - World

Blinken's civics lesson for Netanyahu

U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Jan. 30.

U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Jan. 30. Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

Secretary of State Tony Blinken publicly reminded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the values of democracy this week  — reflecting just how concerned the Biden administration is about the new Israeli government's plan to overhaul the country's judicial system.

Why it matters: It's rare that the U.S. weighs in on domestic legislation of such a close ally. But Blinken's public remarks — albeit diplomatic and polite — urging Netanyahu to get a broad consensus on the judicial overhaul plan highlights the growing anxiety U.S. officials have about what the legislation could mean for Israel's democracy.

Catch up quick: Netanyahu's government — the most right-wing in the country's history — presented its judicial overhaul plan just weeks after taking office.

  • The plan includes passing a law that would allow the governing coalition to override Supreme Court rulings by a simple majority of 61 votes in the 120-member Knesset. That would significantly limit the Supreme Court’s ability to review laws and strike them down.
  • It also seeks to end the Supreme Court's ability to revoke administrative decisions by the government on the grounds of "reasonability," significantly decreasing judicial oversight. And it envisions giving the government and the coalition in parliament absolute control over appointing judges.
  • Inside Israel, the plan has deepened political divisions, prompted mass protests and stoked fear it could have negative consequences for Israeli society and Palestinians.

What they're saying: U.S. officials had privately raised the issue of the judicial overhaul plan with Israeli leaders, but Blinken's decision to do so publicly made clear how the U.S. views the legislation while also drawing the ire of some Israeli lawmakers.

  • Standing next to Netanyahu during their joint televised remarks on Monday, Blinken said the two officials spoke "frankly and respectfully, as friends do, when we agree and when we do not [agree]."

But then Blinken gave what sounded like a civics lesson in democracy, including a detailed description of the "shared values" that have been the foundation of the U.S.-Israel relationship for 75 years.

  • “That includes our support for core democratic principles and institutions, including respect for human rights, the equal administration of justice for all, the equal rights of minority groups, the rule of law, free press, a robust civil society," Blinken said.
  • Blinken added that one of the "unique strengths" of the two countries' democracies is the "recognition that building consensus for new proposals is the most effective way to ensure they’re embraced and that they endure."
  • The message, though subtle, appeared to hint that the Biden administration believes Israel's democracy could be under threat due to the plan.

Behind the scenes: Blinken also raised the issue during his private meeting with Netanyahu, according to U.S. and Israeli sources briefed on the meeting.

  • He didn’t go into the details about the proposed judicial plan, but he did speak broadly about the need to strengthen democracy, not weaken it, the sources said.

For his part, Netanyahu said during Monday's televised joint statement that the two countries "share common values" and they will remain "two strong democracies."

  • Netanyahu and his aides did not comment specifically on Blinken's remarks, but several members of the prime minister's coalition criticized the. U.S. secretary of state's rhetoric.
  • Minister Orit Strock of the far-right Religious Zionism party said Blinken's statements were an “illegitimate attempt to interfere in Israel’s internal matters."
  • Lawmaker Ariel Kelner of Netanyahu's Likud party said Israel will handle its internal affairs the way it sees fit. “I propose that Blinken will deal with matters in his own country," Kelner said.

Asked about the criticism during a press conference on Tuesday, Blinken repeated his democracy remarks but stressed it was up to the Israeli people to "work out" the issue.

  • “What I talked about yesterday ... reflects the shared values that the U.S. and Israel have had and held for more than 75 years, and it is nothing more and nothing less than that," he said.
  • Netanyahu in an interview broadcast on CNN late Tuesday claimed that the judicial plan, which he describes as reforms, will bring "Israel in line with most of the democracies of the world" and correct what he argues is an imbalance of power between the government and judiciary.

Flashback: Blinken’s remarks while standing next to the Israeli prime minister are reminiscent of a similar event in May 2011 when Netanyahu lectured then-President Obama in front of the cameras in the Oval Office about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the end of their meeting.

The big picture: U.S. officials speaking to Axios stressed the judicial overhaul plan hasn’t affected the bilateral relationship in any practical way.

  • Israeli officials agreed, but told Axios the concerns about the plan both in the Biden administration and in Congress, mostly among Democrats, have become a cloud over the relationship.

What to watch: Despite the concerns of many Israelis and the U.S., Netanyahu and his coalition have not indicated they will forgo the plan.

  • The proposal is still being debated on a daily basis in the Knesset's law and judiciary committee. There is no date for a vote in a first hearing.
  • Protests over the plan, which have taken place for four straight Saturdays, are also expected to continue.
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