Axios from Tel Aviv

A set of building blocks, each decorated with a flag of a country in the Middle East.

January 11, 2023

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (1,963 words, 7½ minutes) starts with the deepening political divisions in Israel over the new government's plan to weaken the Supreme Court.
  • It also brings you the latest from the Negev Forum and looks at the changing relationship between Israel and Brazil.

1 big thing: Divisions deepen over Bibi's judicial reform plan

 Thousands rally in Tel Aviv to protest against Netanyahus far-right government and judicial overhaul. (Photo by Matan Golan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Thousands rally in Tel Aviv to protest against Israel's far-right government and judicial overhaul. Photo: Matan Golan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Israeli opposition is calling for mass street protests against the new government’s plan to weaken the Supreme Court and other democratic institutions.

Why it matters: The plan, announced less than two weeks after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government took office, has deepened political divisions and stoked fear among some that the heightened tensions could tear Israeli society apart.

Catch up quick: Israel's Justice Minister Yariv Levin last week presented the government's plan for what he called "judicial reform." 

  • The plan, if implemented, will significantly limit the Supreme Court’s ability to review laws and strike them down.
  • 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.
  • 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.

The plan envisions giving the government and the coalition in parliament absolute control over appointing judges.

  • Additionally, the plan includes changing the law so that ministers would be able to install political appointees as legal advisers in their ministries, something that is not under their authority today.

The impact: Experts say the implementation of the plan will eliminate the ability of the judicial branch to do the checks and balances against the executive and legislative branches, which are both controlled by the governing coalition.

  • The plan could also have consequences for the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. The Israeli Supreme Court has been the only institution that Palestinians in the West Bank can go to defend their rights, mainly regarding land disputes with Israeli settlers.

Driving the news: Up to 10,000 people in Tel Aviv on Saturday rallied against the plan in the first demonstration organized by several popular movements.

  • On Monday, all opposition parties announced they would join the protests and called on their supporters to participate in demonstrations planned for this Saturday in Tel Aviv and other cities.
  • Opposition leader Yair Lapid said the government’s plan is “a radical regime change” that will destroy Israel’s democracy. He also said he would fight against the planned reforms “in the streets.'
  • Calling the plan “a constitutional coup,” former Defense Minister Benny Gantz urged people to take to the streets. "It is time for the public to go out and rock the country. … If Netanyahu continues down this path, the responsibility for the civil war in Israeli society will be his," Gantz said.
  • Netanyahu, who backed Levin’s plan, called Gantz’s remarks "incitement for insurrection."

Between the lines: Levin's plan was presented as Netanyahu stands trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery. He denies any wrongdoing.

  • The Israeli opposition has warned that Netanyahu is pushing for the new plan as part of his effort to stop the trial.

State of play: On Monday, ultranationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir ordered the police to crack down on protesters by using water cannons and arresting those who try to block roads.

  • Separately on Tuesday, anti-government protesters were allegedly attacked in the city of Beer Sheva by a Netanyahu supporter. A member of Lapid’s party who criticized the government on the radio received a phone call from a right-wing activist who allegedly threatened to kill him.

What they're saying: President Isaac Herzog issued a statement on Tuesday urging calm on "all sides." Herzog said he was working on starting a dialogue that could lead to understandings around a possible judicial reform.

  • “I will not allow the principles of our declaration of independence to be harmed, Herzog said. This is a sensitive and explosive time in Israel’s public life. … I call on all Israelis to exercise restraint and calm things down."

What’s next: Despite the protests, Netanyahu and Levin said they will push for the plan.

  • The legislation process is expected to start next week in the Knesset.

2. U.S. sends mixed messages on Israel's judicial plan

Tom Nides, the US Ambassador to Israel, speaks to the Foreign Press Association at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on September 7, 2022.

Tom Nides, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, speaks to the Foreign Press Association at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on Sept. 7, 2022. Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration has sent mixed messages over the Israeli government's judicial reform plan.

Why it matters: The Biden administration faces a dilemma in how to address the sensitive and politically charged Israeli domestic issue that many in the U.S. government fear could impact Israel’s democracy and, as a result, the U.S.’ relationship with Israel.

What they're saying: After Levin presented his plan, a State Department spokesperson stressed the importance of Israel's "independent institutions" for its "thriving democracy."

  • “Israel’s independent institutions are crucial to upholding the country’s thriving democracy, and our shared democratic values are at the heart of our bilateral relationship," the State Department spokesperson told me.

But Tom Nides, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, on Tuesday stressed that the Biden administration should not get involved in this issue.

  • “The Israeli people don't want to be lectured by America. We have shared values," Nides told Israeli public broadcaster Kan.
  • "We will let the Israeli public articulate their support or their dismay. That’s up to them — it is not up to the U.S. to be commenting on judicial issues that they face," Nides added. "Our job is not to impose our will on every decision this government makes like judicial reform."
  • The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on Nides' remarks.

What to watch: White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Tony Blinken are expected to make separate visits to Israel by the end of the month.

  • Sullivan is scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem on Jan. 19, while Blinken will travel to the region the following week.
  • According to U.S. officials, Sullivan and Blinken's visits are primarily aimed at discussing issues like Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the situation on the ground might compel them to also raise the government judicial plan in their meetings with Netanyahu.

3. Negev Forum: Regional cooperation may lead to Israeli-Palestinian talks

Members of the Negev Forum working groups in Abu Dhabi.

Members of the Negev Forum working groups in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Courtesy of the UAE Foreign Ministry

In establishing the Negev Forum, the U.S., Israel, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Morocco agreed that regional cooperation could be used to pave the way for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, according to a document published on Tuesday.

The big picture: The “Negev Forum Regional Cooperation Framework” was adopted by the participating countries in November but kept secret until its first meeting in Abu Dhabi ended this week.

  • According to the document, one of the goals of the forum is to develop and implement initiatives that strengthen the Palestinian economy and improve the quality of life of the Palestinian people.
  • "The Participants also affirmed that these relations can be harnessed to create momentum in Israeli-Palestinian relations, towards a negotiated resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as part of efforts to achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace," the document states.
  • Several Arab countries wanted the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be mentioned in the closing statement of the meeting, but it was taken out of the text after Israeli objections, according to Israeli officials.

Between the lines: The principles in the document were adopted by the previous Israeli government, which was more moderate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

  • The new Israeli government has a hardline stance on this issue.

Driving the news: The document was published after 150 diplomats and officials from the six member states of the Negev Forum convened for two days in Abu Dhabi.

  • State Department counselor Derek Chollet, who led the U.S. delegation, told reporters that it was the largest meeting between Israel and its Arab neighbors since the Madrid Conference in 1991. 
  • The meeting was the first time the working groups that were set up during the Negev Summit last year got together to discuss tangible regional projects focused on food security and water technology, clean energy, tourism, health, education, coexistence, and regional security.
  • The Palestinians were not invited to last year's summit. But U.S. and Israeli officials say the U.S. and Egypt proposed several times to the Palestinians to participate in the working groups in order to see if there are any projects that can be done to improve the Palestinian economy. Palestinian officials have so far declined to participate.

What they're saying: Alon Ushpiz, the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry who headed the Israeli delegation, told me the Arab members want the Palestinians to benefit from the regional projects that the Negev Forum will work on.

  • "Our line is very clear and my instructions going in were very clear — the Negev forum is about strengthening regional integration and improving people’s lives and we don’t want it to engage in political discussions about the Palestinian issue," Ushpiz said.
  • Ushpiz added, however, that when people’s lives are better, it can improve the atmosphere between Israelis and Palestinians. "Maybe when the forum expands, it can turn into a pool where its water is warmer and allows people to jump in and start a wider process," he said.

What’s next: Israeli and U.S. officials say a ministerial meeting of the Negev Forum is expected to take place in Morocco by the end of March.

4. Brazil fires pro-Bolsonaro ambassador to Israel after riots

Bolsonaro and Netanyahu shake hands in Jerusalem in March 2019.

Bolsonaro and Netanyahu shake hands in Jerusalem in March 2019. Photo: Debbie Hill/AFP via Getty Images

Brazil's Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira has fired the country's ambassador to Israel amid what appeared to be a wider crackdown on allies of Jair Bolsonaro after the former right-wing's supporters stormed several of their nation's government institutions on Sunday.

Why it matters: The decision to remove Bolsonaro loyalist Gerson Menandro Garcia de Freitas from his post also comes as Brazil's new government, led by leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, vows to take a more “balanced and traditional” position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the former president.

Catch up quick: Bolsonaro appointed de Freitas, a retired general, as ambassador in 2020 with the aim of boosting security cooperation with Israel.

  • The appointment was part of a wider policy shift by Bolsonaro's government to be much more pro-Israel than the previous governments.
  • Bolsonaro had a close relationship with Netanyahu during the Israeli prime minister's previous time in office.
  • Netanyahu at the time appointed one of his confidants, Yossi Shelley, as ambassador to Brazil. Shelley, who became close with Bolsonaro as ambassador, is now the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office.
  • During Brazil's last election campaign, Netanyahu endorsed Bolsonaro, saying the then-Brazilian president's leadership made the Israel-Brazil relationship stronger than ever.

The big picture: Vieira also removed Nestor Forster, the Brazilian ambassador to the U.S., and Maria Nazareth Farani Azevedo, the consul general to New York, from their posts.

What they're saying: Netanyahu in a tweet this week condemned “the violent disturbances in Brasilia” and expressed support for Brazilian democratic institutions and the rule of law.

  • Bolsonaro has sought to distance himself from the attacks on Brazil's Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace buildings, rejecting accusations that he bears at least some responsibility for stoking tensions and refusing to explicitly concede or recognize Lula or his victory.

5. U.S. official visits region as Israeli-Palestinian tensions soar

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets Hady Amr (L) in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah on May 17, 2021. Photo: Handout/Palestinian Presidency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (right) meets Hady Amr in Ramallah on May 17, 2021. Photo: Handout/Palestinian Presidency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Hady Amr is making his first visit to the region as U.S. special representative for Palestinian affairs amid growing tensions between the new Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.

Why it matters: The Biden administration is concerned the latest tensions could further escalate the situation on the ground.

Driving the news: Israel on Friday announced a series of sanctions against the Palestinian Authority over its latest push for the International Court of Justice to issue a legal opinion on the Israeli occupation.

  • Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told Haaretz earlier this week that the new Israeli sanctions could lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

State of play: Amr is meeting with officials from the Israeli Defense and Foreign ministries, as well as with Shtayyeh and PLO executive committee Secretary-General Hussein al-Sheikh, who is in charge of relations with the Biden administration, sources briefed on the issue told me.

What to watch: U.S. officials say the different visits by U.S. officials over the next few weeks are aimed at trying to reach an understanding with the new Israeli government regarding its policy in the occupied West Bank ahead of a possible visit by Netanyahu to the White House.