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A Letter to President Biden About Israel

Protesters against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul enter Jerusalem after marching from Tel Aviv, July 22.
Credit...Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Dear President Biden:

In October 1973, the armies of Egypt and Syria launched a surprise pincer attack on Israel. As the Israeli Army fell low on ammunition, your predecessor Richard Nixon ordered a massive airlift of weaponry that helped to save the only Jewish democracy from being destroyed from the outside.

Fifty years later, Mr. President, this Jewish democracy urgently needs another airlift to save it from being destroyed from the inside. It needs an urgent resupply of hard truths — something only you can provide.

And what are those truths? That if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues trying to ram through a bill that would strip Israel’s Supreme Court of its most important legal authority — to check extreme appointments or decisions of Israel’s political echelon — and do so without a semblance of national consensus, it will fracture Israel’s military and undermine not only shared values between the U.S. and Israel but also vital U.S. interests.

Mr. President, when we met last Tuesday and you gave me your very measured statement urging Netanyahu not to “rush” this legislation through without “the broadest possible consensus” — which he so clearly does not have — it came as an electric shock to the Israeli political system, dominating the news for several days.

It was such a shock because a vast majority of Israelis believe — rightly — that you are a true friend and that your advice came from the heart.

But I’m afraid this Israeli government needs another dose of your tough love — not just from your heart but from the heart of U.S. strategic interests as well.

Because Netanyahu is plowing ahead despite your urgings. Despite a warning from more than 1,100 Israeli Air Force pilots and technicians that they will not fly for a dictatorship. Despite an open letter signed by dozens of former top security officials, including former heads of the Israel Defense Forces, Mossad, Shin Bet and police beseeching the prime minister to stop. Despite Israel’s top business forum warning of “irreversible and destructive consequences on the Israeli economy.” Despite fears that this could eventually fracture unit cohesion in the base of the Israeli Army. And despite a remarkable, largely spontaneous five-day march by everyday Israelis from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the likes of which had never happened before.

If I may suggest, Mr. President, what is needed is that your secretary of state, your secretary of defense, your Treasury secretary, your commerce secretary, your secretary of agriculture, your U.S. trade representative, your attorney general, your C.I.A. director and your Joint Chiefs call their Israeli counterparts today and let them know that if Netanyahu moves ahead — without a consensus, fracturing Israeli society and its military — it will not only undermine the shared values between our two countries but also do serious damage to our own strategic interests in the Middle East.

And U.S. interests are very much our business. Because as the Knesset moves to vote on this issue on Monday, something very important could break in Israel and in our relationship with Israel. And once it’s gone, it will never come back.

I hope that it is not already too late.

What American interests are at stake? It should be obvious to every U.S. policymaker by now that Netanyahu’s cabinet, one that you described as one of the most “extreme” you’ve ever encountered, has its mind set on two dismantling projects.

One is to dismantle the power of the Supreme Court to rein in this government’s extreme agenda, and the other is to dismantle the Oslo peace process and its road map for a two-state solution, in order to pave the way for a unilateral Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Oslo has been a cornerstone of America’s Middle East policy since 1993.

These twin dismantlings are interconnected: the Jewish supremacists in Netanyahu’s cabinet need to get the Supreme Court out of the way in order to carry out their plans to annex the West Bank. Such a move could easily destabilize Jordan, as it would likely push more and more Palestinians there and change its fragile demographic balance. Jordan is the most important buffer state in the region for the U.S., which operates from Jordanian territory, in collaboration with Jordan, to deal with U.S. security threats from Syria and western Iraq, where ISIS forces continue to operate.

At the same time, Mr. President, you are wrestling with one of the biggest decisions ever involving U.S. strategy in the Middle East: whether to meet Saudi Arabia’s requests for a formal security guarantee from America, for a U.S.-overseen civilian nuclear program and for access to some of the most advanced U.S. arms. In return for this, Saudi Arabia would normalize its relations with Israel (provided that Israel makes some concessions to the Palestinians) and limit its collaboration with China.

It would be both difficult and unfortunate to get such a deal through Congress without strong support from Democrats in the Senate. As you know, Mr. President, Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are two of the least popular world leaders among progressive Democrats, especially considering the way Netanyahu, over the past decade, moved to make support for Israel a Republican cause and spurned the embrace of secular American Jews for that of Christian evangelicals instead.

In short, winning enough support among Democrats to forge this complex deal with Saudi Arabia will be a huge lift on a good day; it will be even harder if Netanyahu neuters the Israeli Supreme Court — undermining our shared values of an independent judiciary — and moves ahead with plans to annex the West Bank. And without you as president, such a deal would be virtually impossible, because very few Democrats in the Senate would support it if it was pushed by a Republican president. In short, the window for this deal is small.

Moreover, in 2016 you and President Barack Obama signed a 10-year, $38 billion agreement to enhance Israel’s military. Are we supposed to just sit back and watch silently while that military — which we have made such a huge investment in to amplify our power projection in the Middle East — fractures over efforts to restrict the power of the Israeli Supreme Court? That would be a disaster for us and for Israel, which has real enemies like Iran and Hezbollah on its doorstep.

Also, we can already see that the extreme behavior of this Israeli government in expanding settlements in the West Bank is beginning to damage the historic relations forged by President Donald Trump between Israel and the U.A.E., Bahrain and Morocco with the Abraham Accords. All three Arab countries have been forced to cool their diplomatic ties with Israel.

Mr. President, there is no institution in any democracy that can’t be improved, and that applies to Israel’s Supreme Court. There have been complaints from the center right that the Israeli high court manifested an occasional judicial overreach in the past. But between 2015 and 2019, Likud governments successfully shepherded the appointments of four conservative justices to the Supreme Court — under the current system that Netanyahu wants to scrap. It shows you how bogus this whole “judicial reform” really is.

There is a huge difference between making the Israeli Supreme Court more politically and ethnically inclusive and making this Israeli government immune from its scrutiny — especially in a system in which the high court in Israel is the only real check on executive overreach.

And the latter is what Netanyahu’s coalition is up to, and it is the latter that undermines not just our shared values with Israel but also our own strategic interests, which we are entitled — indeed we are required — to defend.

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Posted on 24 Jul 2023 12:25 link