Introductory notes: In a J Street Leadership call last week, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was blunt – American Jews must speak out against the policies of the anti-democratic government of Israel. Echoing his call, J Street’s Israel Executive Director, a former Israeli Consul General to New England, and an aid to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Nadav Tamir, said: “Only America can save Israel from its own government.”

In all my years as a liberal Zionist activist I have never heard Israelis speak so candidly and with such worry about their own government’s direction and the future of Israeli democracy as I have heard in recent weeks since this most extreme right-wing-ultra-Orthodox-nationalist government in the history of the State of Israel assumed power.

Israelis have taken to the streets in huge numbers to protest this government’s threatened actions. On Monday, as the Knesset was meeting to pass (in the first round in committee) a radical re-visioning of Israel’s judicial system, estimates of between 80,000 and 300,000 Israelis came to Jerusalem by car, train, and bus from Haifa, Tel Aviv, and everywhere else (many taking their children with them and out of school for the day) because of the shock that the Knesset’s Constitution and Law Committee and Justice Department are having on the country as a whole. Polls indicate that a clear majority of Israelis oppose this legislation that would place all power in the hands of the ruling coalition government and, therefore, in the hands of the Prime Minister without any check or balance from the government’s judicial branch.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog has asked the Netanyahu government to pause its legislation and come together with the opposition, leading jurists, and academics to reach a reasonable compromise in which some legitimate reform can be instituted that would gain widespread approval from the Israeli public. The two leading figures in the government, however, Justice Minister Yariv Levin (from the Likud Party) and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK Simcha Rothman (from the extreme nationalist Religious Zionist Party) are doggedly pushing these so-called “reforms” (but really a radical restructuring of Israel’s judiciary system) forward and refuse to compromise. Yair Lapid, the former Prime Minister and opposition leader, said he was willing to meet immediately according to the terms of President Herzog’s invitation and 5-point plan, but only if the reforms are put on pause.

Israel is in crisis, and adding these domestic issues to what the government is doing in the West Bank – preparing the ground in Area C to be annexed de facto against international law – Israel needs the United States and American Jewry to at once continue our support of the Jewish state and its security but also demand that this government cease its radical policies. What Israel does affects us here, our pride in being Jews, our security against antisemitism, and our future as integrated American-Jewish citizens. Polls suggest that young American Jews, in particular, are turning away from Israel in increasingly large numbers. (If you have not read Tom Friedman’s opinion piece that I posted yesterday, I urge you to do so now.)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in Israel’s daily newspaper Ha’aretz (Israel’s newspaper of record much like the NYT in America) on Monday harshly condemned the Israeli security cabinet’s steps to legalize nine West Bank outposts, construct thousands of new settlement housing units, and connect outposts to water and electricity – all despite previous explicit opposition from the Biden administration.

In the last several weeks, at least two letters signed by hundreds of American Jewish leaders were sent to the leadership of Israel and the United States urging the Israeli government to step back from the brink. We are making our views known, but in the end, the decisions of the Israeli government are in the hands of the Knesset and Israelis – and Israelis by a clear majority are opposed to what this government is doing.

What follows is a J STREET ACTION MEMO for the Biden Administration and United States Congress concerning West Bank policies and the increasing violence between Jewish settlers, the Israeli West Bank military administration and Palestinians living under occupation as well as the above mentioned judicial “reforms.” It was written by Dylan Williams, J Street’s Senior Vice President for Policy and Strategy, and Dr. Debra Shushan, J Street’s Director of Policy, yesterday (February 13, 2023):

“Amid an escalation in deadly violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — including recent terror attacks that killed Israeli civilians, including two young children, as well as Israeli raids against militants that killed Palestinian civilians — Israel’s new ultra-right-wing government decided this week to move forward with a series of provocative and consequential steps toward West Bank annexation and removal of judicial restraints on its executive power.

The government decided to take the following major steps toward annexation, which intentionally preempt prospects for a peaceful two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by converting significant West Bank land into territory functionally attached to Israel, while further shrinking and isolating the small pockets of disjointed land left for Palestinians living under military occupation:

● “Regularizing” or “legalizing” nine outposts in the occupied West Bank that are illegal under both Israeli and international law, turning them into new, authorized settlements;

● Connecting dozens of other still-illegal outposts to Israeli state-provided infrastructure like water and electricity; and

● Convening the planning and zoning committees of Israel’s Civil Administration in the occupied West Bank to approve the planning and building of thousands of new housing units in existing settlements — possibly the largest ever single approval of such units.

The government also moved to neutralize the judiciary and eliminate checks on its power by advancing through Knesset two bills that are integral parts of the Netanyahu government’s plan to subvert Israel’s judicial system, serving Netanyahu’s personal interest in evading conviction on corruption charges and his government’s goal of removing the Supreme Court as an obstacle to the radical reforms contained in its coalition agreements, including those regarding annexation:

● Moving a bill to functionally terminate the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review on foundational issues by preventing the Court from considering the validity of Israel’s Basic Laws – which stipulate civil rights and the powers and functions of Israel’s governing bodies, in the absence of a formal Constitution – or amendments to them; and

● Advancing a second bill that would allow the governing coalition to pack the judiciary with judges of its own choosing, in contrast to the current system which requires judges and politicians to achieve a consensus upon the appointments of new judges to Israel’s Supreme Court and all other civil courts. According to the proposed law, five of nine members of the selection committee would be members of the coalition government, and a bare majority of five votes would be required to appoint judges.

Taking Action: Recommendations for the Biden Administration and Congress

The Biden Administration has reportedly been weighing in privately against such moves with top Israeli officials for several weeks. In response to the Israeli government’s decision to move forward with the West Bank steps this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was “deeply troubled” and “strongly oppose[s] such unilateral measures, which exacerbate tensions and undermine the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution.”

Just days before, President Biden himself cautioned against the moves to undermine Israel’s judiciary with a measured 46-word warning that: “The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary. Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”

The magnitude of the Israeli government’s provocative moves toward annexation and against the democratic rule of law at this volatile moment merit an urgent and more forceful US government response. At a minimum, the Biden administration and US lawmakers should take the following steps:

● Publicly and consistently make clear that there is a distinction in international law and US policy between the State of Israel and the territory it controls in the West Bank, and that the United States does not regard West Bank settlements as consistent with international law or as part of Israel;

● Reinforce US and international differentiation between Israel and the West Bank through steps like restoring the longstanding bipartisan customs guidance on accurate labeling of West Bank goods;

● Indicate that use of US-origin military equipment or aid in connection with acts toward annexation like evictions, demolitions, forced relocations and the construction of civilian infrastructure designed to benefit settlers could trigger investigations into whether such use constituted a violation of existing US arms export control or aid law;

● Make clear to Israeli officials that the United States will not block accurate, appropriate criticism of acts toward annexation like evictions, demolitions and forced relocations in international fora, including in the United Nations Security Council;

● State that the shared values upon which a strong, crucial US-Israel relationship rests are premised upon democratic systems underpinned by an independent judiciary that acts as a check upon executive power and protects civil liberties — and that an erosion in Israeli democracy would negatively impact the bilateral relationship; and

● Remind Israeli officials that compromising judicial independence can impact the decisions of international bodies like the International Criminal Court as to the adequacy of domestic remedies, making review of Israeli actions by such bodies more likely.”