Jul 11, 2023 - World

U.S. calls on Israel to not crack down on anti-government protesters

 Israeli security forces block anti-government demonstrators during a rally at Ben Gurion Airport near Lod on July 11, 2023.

Israeli security forces block anti-government demonstrators during a rally at the Ben Gurion Airport on July 11. Photo: Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images

The White House called on the Israeli government “to protect and respect the right of peaceful assembly” after Israeli police made dozens of arrests and used force against protesters who rallied across the country against the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul.

Why it matters: The unusual statement by the White House on domestic issues of an ally like Israel signals the growing concern of the Biden administration about the escalating internal unrest in the country.

What they're saying: “We urge authorities in Israel to protect and respect the right of peaceful assembly. It is clear there is significant debate and discussion in Israel on the proposed judicial plan. Such debates are a healthy part of a vibrant democracy," a White House National Security Council spokesperson told Axios.

Driving the news: Thousands of Israelis demonstrated across the country on Monday, blocked main roads, and held a mass protest at the Ben Gurion International Airport that affected the operations.

  • Police used force against some protesters at a level not seen at previous demonstrations. More than 70 people were arrested — a number that is significantly higher than that seen at other demonstrations.
  • Videos shared on social media showed police officers beating protesters and also using horses and water cannons. Several protesters were wounded and needed medical care.
  • Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai said the police haven't used more force than in previous demonstrations and claimed the police respected the right to peacefully protest. "If you don't want to get hit by a horse don't come near it," he said on Israel's Kan radio.

The escalation in the force used by the police came a few days after Netanyahu held a three-hour Cabinet meeting with the chief of police and the attorney general about the demonstrations.

  • During the Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu and many of his ministers attacked Shabtai and the attorney general for what they called “un-even law enforcement” and claimed the police were being soft on the current protests compared to how they treated previous rallies by right-wing demonstrators.
  • Netanyahu and his ministers pressed the police and the attorney general to conduct tougher enforcement measures against the protesters.
  • Several days before this Cabinet meeting, the Tel Aviv chief of police who was ousted by Minister of Internal Security Itamar Ben-Gvir gave a speech in which he claimed he was removed for refusing the ultranationalist minister's demands to "crack skulls."
  • Shortly after the speech, tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets for spontaneous demonstrations in Tel Aviv and 30 other cities and towns across the country.

State of play: Netanyahu recently resumed the legislation unilaterally after suspending it in March to allow for negotiations with the opposition. Those talks have since collapsed. The legislation is aimed at weakening the Supreme Court and other democratic institutions.

  • The Knesset in a first reading on Monday voted in favor of a bill that would significantly diminish the Supreme Court's ability to review government decisions and appointments.

What to watch: The White House National Security Council spokesperson said the Biden administration continues to urge the Israeli government to stop the unilateral legislation process and seek a consensus-based approach toward judicial reform.

  • “The President has been clear he hopes Prime Minister Netanyahu will work to find a genuine compromise," the spokesperson said.
  • Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the longest-serving Jewish member of Congress in a tweet on Tuesday said: "I continue to express my profound concerns with Israel’s governing coalition’s anti-democratic judicial overhaul plans, part of which moved forward early this morning."
  • Nadler added: "Along with the thousands of peaceful demonstrators across Israel who are standing up for Israeli democracy, I urge the government to reconsider these plans and seek appropriate compromise."

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