President Biden can show his support for Israel by staying silent

As a certified “ardent Zionist,” I have watched in horror as the people of Israel tear themselves asunder in the bull-headed pursuit of legislation by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu that would rein in what some see as judicial over-reach by the nation’s supreme court.

Specifically, the law approved Monday by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, by a vote of 64-0 — the opposition all walked out rather than give legitimacy to the legislation even by voting against it — denied the court the right to invalidate laws or government decisions based on their “reasonableness.” This is a concept the justices cited last year to invalidate the cabinet appointment of a leader of an orthodox political party previously convicted of tax fraud.

The government argued that the court had repeatedly replaced the authority of elected leaders with that of unelected judges; the opposition — including thousands of street protesters — viewed the law as just the beginning of an assault on the independent judiciary, part of an effort to make Israel a Hungary-style illiberal democracy favorable to the ideas and policies of the extreme right.

In recent weeks, efforts to negotiate a compromise that would avert a parliamentary showdown, led by Israel’s president, broke down. In the end, Netanyahu rejected pleas even from his own defense minister and forged ahead with a vote, demanding full loyalty from his Likud party and its coalition partners. All this for a final result that, as Talleyrand might have said, was worse than a crime — it was a mistake.

Rather than accept a bargain that would have bound the opposition to support the vast majority of the government’s original demands, the extremist ideologues in Netanyahu’s cabinet insisted on plowing ahead on their own, ensuring that this week’s vote will be reversed the first day a new government comes to office. Given that Israel has had 37 governments in 75 years, a new one is coming, sooner or later.

But as an American, I keep scratching my head as to President Biden’s seemingly intense interest in this issue. Why has he commented — either directly, through American and Israeli journalists, or via his press secretary — multiple times on this domestic Israeli political issue? Why did he repeatedly warn against this bill and then criticize its passage?

The rationale most frequently provided by the White House for the president’s interest is fear that Israel’s democracy will be weakened by speedy parliamentary approval of a law on a vital issue without any support from the opposition, thereby loosening the common bonds between our two great democracies.

But this explanation doesn’t really hold water. It has certainly not been an issue in the past. For example, I don’t recall President Clinton warning Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 30 years ago not to press forward with the Oslo Accord, Israel’s historic but highly controversial peace agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was only approved (via a no-confidence motion) with 61 votes in the 120-member Knesset — a much narrower margin than the judicial reform vote. (I supported the Oslo Accords, by the way, and still do.)

And here at home, passing important legislation without opposition consensus is not much of an issue either. The White House seems quite at ease with Vice President Kamala Harris tying the historical record by so far casting 31 tie-breaking votes in the Senate, including on the administration’s signature achievement, the Inflation Reduction Act.

Democracies sometimes get things done by narrow margins. That’s how our system — and Israel’s — works. 

Perhaps President Biden waded into the Israeli political morass in response to pleas from Israelis themselves, maybe even from some current Israeli government officials who despaired of their own ability to affect the course of their domestic crisis. If so, this wouldn’t be the first time Israelis looked to Washington to solve their internal problems. Here, the history is clear even if the lesson usually goes unheeded — it’s not a good idea for either side to wade into the domestic politics of the other. As often as not, well-intentioned intervention can trigger new, bigger problems.

To be sure, there is an important national security rationale for U.S. interest in Israel’s judicial legislation: that Israel’s adversaries not misread dissent for division and miscalculate into conflict. Indeed, there is a legitimate fear that the leaders of Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas see protests by Israeli military reservists, including the vow of many air force pilots to refuse to report for duty, as chinks in the Jewish state’s armor and decide the moment is ripe to put Israel to the test.

But, in this case, the proper response is not for Washington to warn Israel’s government that a parliamentary vote risks the foundational “shared values” of the U.S.-Israel relationship, inadvertently fueling its enemies’ warped rationale for adventurism. Rather, the right approach is to affirm the strength and constancy of American support for Israel, regardless of how it sorts out its constitutional housekeeping.

On this issue, I think it’s important to give Joe Biden some slack. His record shows he is more than just “pro-Israel” — I view him a true Zionist, in the sense that he appreciates the profound importance of the existence of the Jewish state and how its vibrancy and success advances our own. And I am sure that he, like so many others, were moved by the inspiring sight of tens of thousands of ordinary Israelis returning to the streets week after week, showing the world how true patriots engage in civil protest — peacefully, joyfully, waving their nation’s flag, not burning it.

But I believe the president erred by elevating Israel’s domestic crisis into a political issue between our two countries. His stance risks setting in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy about the erosion of U.S.-Israel ties that may be more consequential in convincing Israel’s enemies that the Jewish state is weak and vulnerable than the mass walk-out of reservists.

There are times when it is right and appropriate for one friend to intervene publicly in another’s internal politics. And then there are times when it is wisest to keep one’s advice private and criticism discreet, maintaining a public silence. This time, silence would have been the wiser course.

Robert Satloff is Segal executive director of The Washington Institute.

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