Mar 22, 2023 - World

Scoop: U.S. Dem lawmakers hold "emotional" meeting with Israeli ambassador

Brad Schneider

Rep. Brad Schneider. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A group of Jewish Democratic members of Congress held a tough meeting with Israeli Ambassador to Washington Mike Herzog two weeks ago and expressed grave concern about the Netanyahu government’s plan to weaken the Supreme Court, two Israeli officials briefed on the meeting and two members of Congress who attended the meeting told Axios.

Why it matters: The private meeting reflected the high level of anxiety among Democrats who are staunch supporters of Israel and represent large Jewish constituencies about the judicial overhaul plan and how it could affect the U.S.-Israel relationship.

  • It also echoed similar concerns expressed by the Biden administration over what the plan could mean for Israel's democracy. President Biden expressed concerns to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this week.

Catch up quick: The judicial overhaul plan, presented by the most right-wing government in Israel's history, has deepened political divisions in Israel and prompted protests, including within the ranks of the Israeli military, against Netanyahu's government.

Behind the scenes: The meeting, which included more than 20 Democrats, included harsh criticism over the plan, according to the two Israeli officials with direct knowledge of the meeting.

  • One member of Congress who attended the meeting told Axios that the discussion was “frank and candid” with all the attendees expressing concerns that reflected what many are hearing from their Jewish constituents. It "was not argumentative," the lawmaker said.

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), who helped organize the meeting, described it as "emotional."

  • "We did raise the specter that some of the changes being discussed, if taken to their extreme, could have an adverse impact on Israeli democracy," Schneider said, stressing that those who attended the meeting have a very close connection to Israel and a strong commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship.
  • "There is a special aspect to Israel as the democratic Jewish state. And that has always had a special place in the U.S.-Israel relationship," he told Axios.
  • Schneider added that the members of Congress didn’t give the Israeli ambassador an “if, then” threat but stressed that if the judicial overhaul plan is implemented without changes, it will be harder “to talk about Israel in the same way."

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) stressed during the meeting that he has heard concerns from every corner of the Jewish community in his district and added that his constituents are alarmed by these reforms and their potential harm to Israeli democracy, a congressional aide with knowledge of the meeting said.

  • The aide added that other lawmakers expressed concerns that moving forward with these judicial reforms could have negative consequences for the U.S.-Israel relationship.
  • A member of Congress who attended the meeting, but asked to remain anonymous, said the attendees raised concerns that the judicial plan would hamper the independence of the Israeli Supreme Court and, as a result, there will be fewer protections for the rights of minorities.
  • "The ambassador listened very carefully and committed that he would take all of our concerns back directly to the prime minister," the member of Congress said.
  • "There were members in the room who represented … significant Jewish populations within their districts and they wanted to make sure that the prime minister understood that this is not a few lone voices and that many members of the Jewish community across the country are deeply concerned," the lawmaker said.
  • The Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

What to watch: The Netanyahu government announced on Monday it will move ahead with one of the key elements of the judicial plan, which includes changing the process of appointing judges and giving the government full control over Supreme Court appointments.

  • If implemented, it will be the first time since the committee was formed in 1953 that Supreme Court judges will be appointed by only politicians from the coalition.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that one lawmaker (not two) told Axios the discussion with Herzog was "frank and candid" with all the attendees expressing concerns that reflected what many are hearing from their Jewish constituents.

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