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As Israel erupts, Biden’s longstanding support is shaken


The White House expressed relief on Monday after a divisive plan to overhaul Israel’s justice system was put on hold, postponing at least for now the prospect of a tumultuous democratic collapse by one of the world’s closest allies. of America, just as President Biden aims to defend democracy on the world stage.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has not given up on his unprecedented efforts to change the country’s system of checks and balances, is one of several world leaders the Biden administration has invited to speak at a Wednesday a “Summit for Democracy”. The rally is part of Biden’s signature effort to herald judicial independence and other values ​​that critics — including many in Israel and even in the prime minister’s orbit — say Netanyahu is actively undermining.

The tension puts Biden in a difficult political spot, caught between the crosscurrents of his longtime support for the Jewish state and an Israeli leader facing massive protests for allegedly assaulting the democratic values ​​that Biden has placed at the center of his foreign politic. The drama unfolds against the backdrop of a subtle but unmistakable shift in Israel’s place in American politics, as some Democrats, as well as many in the American Jewish community, are much more willing to push back against its policies.

Netanyahu has already recorded a video message for Biden’s democracy summit and submitted it to US officials in Washington, said a diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. The Biden administration has given no indication that it plans to cancel the opportunity to speak about Netanyahu at the summit, although some liberal Israel supporters say providing a platform for Netanyahu under the current circumstances is in contradiction with the mission of the summit.

“I think that would send a demoralizing signal to the Israeli public who have been protesting for their democracy for months,” said Joel Rubin, a former Obama administration official and former executive director of the American Jewish Congress. “The power of the president’s leadership as a longtime friend of Israel is immense.”

As Israel has moved to the right and Netanyahu has become more responsive to voices from nationalists and religious leaders, the country has faced more criticism from the grassroots Democratic Party, which has grown younger. and more diverse. In 2018, Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan became the first Palestinian-American elected official. serve in Congress. And some members of the Black Lives Matter movement have spoken of parallels between Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and their own struggles.

In a Pew Research Center poll last year, 67% of Americans expressed a favorable opinion of the Israeli people, compared to 52% who have a favorable opinion of the Palestinians. But among those under 30, the trend was reversed: 61% had a favorable opinion of the Palestinian people, while 56% said the same of Israelis.

The tension between Biden and Netanyahu also had a personal element. Netanyahu has taken an unusually partisan approach to US politics, making clear his contempt for former President Barack Obama and openly embracing former President Donald Trump, a stance Trump reciprocated.

For Biden, whose White House has issued unusually blunt statements in recent days expressing concern over Netanyahu’s efforts to overhaul his justice system, the issue is particularly politically sensitive, said Eric Alterman, historian and author of ” We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Against Israel.

‘Biden has to decide if he wants to appeal to Netanyahu, or if he wants to appeal to the people of Israel,’ he said, referring to the thousands of Israeli citizens who have taken to the streets to protest in recent weeks. .

Biden increasingly at odds with his party on Israel

Civil unrest escalated Sunday night after Netanyahu fired his defense minister, who had publicly criticized his efforts to remake the country’s courts. The plan would give Netanyahu’s government greater power to select judges, a move that could impact the prime minister’s own corruption trial as well as rulings on a range of topics, including civil liberties and rights. Palestinian rights.

Thousands of Israelis have called the plan to assault the system the country’s checks and balances, and many American Jews have called on the White House to take a tougher pro-democracy stance, even if that means crossing paths with a longtime ally.

White House officials, asked if Netanyahu’s attendance at Wednesday’s democracy summit was appropriate, declined to second guess the invitation.

“Israel was one of 121 countries invited to the Democracy Summit,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. “I have nothing more to say about participation.”

Asked about Netanyahu’s judicial reorganization as a whole, Kirby said the Biden administration had said “privately” and “publicly” that the legislation would “go against the whole idea of ​​checks and balances.” Such language amounts to an unusually strong rebuke to a country that US officials often praise as the only beacon of democracy in an authoritarian-dominated region.

Since Biden took office, he has made a concerted effort to avoid public infighting with Israel, which enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress, even as its support among grassroots Democrats has dwindled.

Early in Biden’s presidency, Israel launched a major incursion into Gaza after Hamas repeatedly fired rockets into Israel. After several conversations with Netanyahu, Biden cautiously called for a ceasefire, then stepped up his message and more forcefully urged the parties to de-escalate.

While not a major break with the Jewish state, it was a signal that despite Biden’s longtime backing, Israel could not count on unconditional support during his presidency.

On the current crisis in Israel, a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, said the administration would continue to try to stay under the radar and avoid a confrontation messy.

When asked if the Biden administration was not rising to the occasion, Rubin, a Biden ally, said “they recognize that there are limited tools in their toolbox. “.

He added, “Would I like to see more people in Congress speaking out? Yes. Israelis watch what Americans say every day.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the White House was pleased to see Netanyahu pause his plan and urged the government and opposition to reach an agreement on the way forward . “We continue to strongly urge the Israeli leadership to find a compromise as soon as possible,” she said.

Jean-Pierre said Biden had a “very honest conversation” with Netanyahu about his legal plan.

The White House tried to proceed delicately. On March 19, officials released a summary of Biden’s phone call with Netanyahu, saying the president had expressed his belief that “fundamental change must be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support.” In a statement after Netanyahu fired his defense minister, the White House said it was “deeply concerned” about the developments.

Former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said the public messages reflected a sentiment that Biden expressed “more directly in private” about the state of democracy in Israel.

“It appears the prime minister has taken his advice, for now, and it has bought time for a different approach with the possibility of a more consensual outcome,” Shapiro said.

The break may also allow Biden to move forward with his democracy summit with less concern about Netanyahu’s participation, pointing to Israel as a place with institutions strong enough to withstand a crisis, he said. he added.

“The fact that even a highly contentious debate can reach a point where there is at least an opening for dialogue and for an attempt to reach some consensus is actually the hallmark of a strong democracy,” Shapiro said.

The toughest challenge may come as Israel seeks to find a compromise acceptable to liberal and secular Israelis, as well as conservative religious factions. If that fails, Biden will again face the difficult challenge of formulating a diplomatic but firm response.

In the meantime, Biden, whose relationship with Netanyahu dates back four decades, may feel pressure to tread carefully, given the complex domestic politics in the United States. While some Democrats have grown more vocal in criticizing Israel on various issues, there are few signs that the bipartisan coalition supporting the longtime US ally is crumbling.

“I would leave that to the Israelis,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said Monday when asked if he had a reaction to the judicial overhaul crisis.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said he didn’t see anything Congress or Biden should do at this point to pressure Netanyahu, though he mentioned that many members of Congress had sent letters saying that the Prime Minister’s proposal was unacceptable.

“I think Netanyahu is in a political stalemate at this point where if the courts go ahead he could lose his leadership, but if he pursues his strategy he could lose it as well,” said Durbin, a Democrat. °2 of the Senate and President. of the Judiciary Committee. “He created an impossible situation.”

Some Democrats are calling for tougher actions by the US government, especially since mass protests erupted in Israel and Netanyahu abruptly sacked his defense minister.

“President Biden was right to emphasize that shared democratic values ​​are at the heart of the US-Israel partnership,” said Mara Rudman, executive vice president of the Center for American Progress, who served as envoy to the Middle East under the Obama administration. “The Biden administration can only be more concerned about the absence of a responsible figure focused on Israel’s security at the helm of the Department of Defense.”

For their part, Republicans will likely seize any daylight between Biden and the Israeli government to accuse the president of failing to defend America’s closest ally in the Middle East. The political dynamics, which come just as Biden prepares to launch his re-election bid, will only worsen as the 2024 race heats up, Alterman said.

Netanyahu’s close relationship with Trump, who is running to oust Biden from office, is another factor the president must consider as he addresses a sensitive issue that has implications for US domestic politics and of Israel.

“There’s not much that (Biden) can do in public. There’s probably things he can do in private, as long as he doesn’t humiliate Netanyahu and put him in a corner “If he tries to cancel it, then Biden will have the kind of fight on his hands that he wants nothing to do with.”

Tyler Pager and Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.


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