Netanyahu’s judicial reforms have US lawmakers worried about Israeli democracy

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Sen. Chris Murphy represents Connecticut and Sen. Chris Coons represents Delaware in the U.S. Senate. We regret the error.

President Biden and members of Congress are watching with deep concern how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moves forward with so-called judicial reforms that have drawn unprecedented opposition on the Israeli street.

The reforms have been criticized by opponents as stripping Israel’s Supreme Court of its independence — an issue central to the nation’s democratic principles.

Weeks of protests have drawn an estimated 100,000 people. Protesters have blocked highways, harassed Netanyahu’s wife and have been targeted by police with stun grenades and foul water cannons.

The demonstrations over the controversial reforms are also driving the U.S. and Israel relationship into uncharted territory, with some lawmakers questioning what is happening to democracy in the longtime U.S. ally.

“We’ve seen the most widespread demonstrations in modern Israeli history against the proposed reforms, so, I think, more importantly than whether I’m concerned, the Israeli people are concerned, and it’s produced I think a real moment of crisis for Israeli democracy,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a key foreign policy surrogate for Biden.

“My hope is that the proposals will be reconsidered, modified, and I am following developments in Israel,” Coons told The Hill.

Biden and his top officials, in unprecedented warnings, have told Netanyahu that moving ahead with the changes threaten the “shared values” of the U.S. and Israel relationship.

On Thursday, 16 Jewish, House lawmakers wrote a letter calling for the Israeli government to suspend the judicial reforms and work towards a compromise between Netanyahu’s government and the political opposition.

Israel has become an increasingly partisan issue in the U.S., but the reforms have created some uneasiness with members of both parties.

“In our system, in the United States of America, this would not be a good thing,” Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said of the reforms. At the same time, Risch was hesitant to criticize Israel.

“I think it’s a lot more complicated than, ‘well here in America that would be bad.’ Yes, it would be bad in America, but their system is different than our system,” said Risch, who met with

Netanyahu in Jerusalem late last month. He said judicial reforms did not come up in their discussions, though he was aware of the protests.

The reforms being pursued by Netanyahu’s coalition include allowing the government to overrule Supreme Court decisions. It would also let the executive take more power to appoint justices that critics say will politicize the bench.

“We’re very alarmed that this new [Israeli] government is attempting to undermine judicial checks and balances,” said Amy Slipowitz, research manager at Freedom House, which monitors the state of democracy across the world.

“These checks have been critical to protect the rights of individuals from all segments of Israel’s society, and also for holding executive officials to account for abuses. An independent judiciary is absolutely essential to uphold the rule of law, and appropriate checks and balances are core components of democracy, so the government’s actions have been quite concerning.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the ranking member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, also expressed concern.

“What I hope will happen is that, as they work through judicial reform, how to make judges more accountable, that they’re mindful of the idea that an independent judiciary needs to be still standing,” he said.

There is deep bipartisan support for Israel in Congress even as partisan tensions have erupted. Netanyahu is a controversial figure for many Democrats who remember his 2015 snub of President Obama in an address to Congress. Former President Trump, upon succeeding Obama, wholeheartedly embraced Netanyahu’s positions on the Israeli and Palestinian conflict and moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

Israeli politics has undergone its own extreme polarization. Netanyahu secured a governing coalition by agreeing to the demands of far-right politicians that included — on top of the judicial reforms — commitments to pursue annexation and settlement expansions in the West Bank. Other legal proposals in the coalition agreement are criticized as targeting discrimination protections for religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ individuals.

“I have never been more alarmed about the future of Israel,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a member of the Senate committees on Foreign Relations and Appropriations, told The Hill.

“As a democracy, I think that Netanyahu operates as though he’s got the American political system wired, and can act with impunity, and ignore democratic norms and harm Palestinian people, and that has to stop,” he continued.

“Our relationship is long standing, is a friendship based on shared values and shared interests. But if they cease to share our values and our interests, then we’re going to have to reevaluate the relationship.”

Schatz’s comments represent some of the most outspoken criticism among 14 Senators asked for comment by The Hill. The lawmakers included nine Democrats and five Republicans.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he had “faith” Israel would “maintain its rock-solid commitment to democracy,” but said he was engaged on the issue.

“I don’t conduct all my relationships with Israeli officials in public, some of that happens in private as well.”

Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said he was in regular contact with diplomatic and security leaders in the region.

“I have very serious concerns about the level of violence and threat of escalation of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories, today and over the next several months.”

The judicial reforms are one element of what regional watchers are saying is an unprecedented collision of political and security crises.

Israelis and Palestinians are caught up in a particularly heinous cycle of violence, that includes civilian Palestinian casualties amid Israeli security raids in the West Bank, Palestinian terrorist attacks targeting Israelis and Israeli settlers in the West Bank attacking Palestinian villages in retribution attacks.

This has been further inflamed by far-right members of Netanyahu’s party, with Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich calling for the Palestinian village of Huwara to be “wiped out” by the State of Israel, after it was attacked by Israeli settlers following the killing of two Israeli brothers by a Palestinian from the village.

“I don’t recall a moment like this where there are so many negative forces that seem to be coming to a head,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has served in Republican and Democratic presidential administrations focused on the Middle East.

“We’re in uncharted waters.”

Smotrich has tried to walk back his comments after Netanyhau alluded to them as “inappropriate.” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price called the comments “repugnant.

“What we’ve seen now is that you have a group of ministers who declare themselves without shyness that they are basically Jewish supremacists, that the land belongs to them based on their read of the bible,” said Shibley Telhami, professor of political science at the University of Maryland and senior fellow with the Brookings Institutions.

The Biden administration has also called out as “unacceptable” a visit by Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims and its neutrality and security tenuously maintained by Jordan.

The visit was viewed as an extreme provocation by Ben-Gvir, another far-right politician who was convicted when he was younger of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist group.

“You’ve got this new government that has some very extreme and racist elements in it, in the name of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Hill.

“They seem to be driving the train, even though Prime Minister Netanyahu says he has both hands on the steering wheel,” Van Hollen continued, referring to statements Netanyahu made in an interview with CNN last month where he played down the two lawmakers’ power in his coalition.

To help tamp down violence in the region, the Biden administration had Israeli and Palestinian officials commit to “end unilateral measures” viewed as worsening tensions. This included a commitment by Israel to freeze rhetoric surrounding settlement expansions and claiming land in the West Bank for a period between four and six months.

The joint communique, signed by the U.S. and Israeli and Palestinian officials as well as Jordan and Egypt, was also meant to signal commitment towards achieving a political settlement of a two-state solution, even as the Biden administration has held back from declaring a push for peace talks.

“The near-term goal is the goal we keep stressing in public and in private, that Israelis and Palestinians must take steps on an urgent basis to de-escalate tensions, to restore calm, and to put an end to this cycle of violence that has taken the lives of far too many on both sides,” Price said on Wednesday.

“But ultimately all of this is in service of a negotiated two-state solution.”

Updated 8:48 p.m.

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