White House gets brief reprieve after Israel delays judicial reforms 

Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan set up bonfires and block a highway during a protest moments after the Israeli leader fired his defense minister, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 26, 2023. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant had called on Netanyahu to freeze the plan, citing deep divisions in the country and turmoil in the military. (AP Photo/Oren Ziv)

The Biden administration is watching Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s single-minded pursuit of judicial reforms with extreme concern, and working to quell the chaos and explosive cycle of violence with the Palestinians that Netanyahu’s agenda has inflamed.

Netanyahu appeared to step back from the brink on Monday, with members of his coalition announcing they would delay pursuing the controversial legislation for at least a month, until the next parliamentary session.

The announcement followed unprecedented protests and government strikes throughout the day, after news broke Sunday night that Netanyahu fired his defense minister, who had opposed the judicial reforms.

In remarks Monday night, Netanyahu said that he is taking “time-out for dialogue.” 

“We are on the path of a dangerous collision in Israeli society. We are in the midst of a crisis that endangers the basic unity among us. Such a crisis requires us all to act responsibly,” he said in remarks in Hebrew.

U.S. officials welcomed the news, while reiterating calls for compromise in the negotiations to come.

“We believe that it is the best path forward for Israel and all of its citizens to find this compromise,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Netanyahu’s conservative government has in recent weeks attempted to push through reforms to Israel’s judiciary that would effectively allow the government to choose judges on the country’s top court.

Critics of the law say it would erase checks and balances that are central to democratic governance — and in particular, that it would protect Netanyahu from court cases in which he faces charges of bribery and corruption, erase key protections for minority groups in the country and threaten efforts to preserve a two-state solution with the Palestinians.  

Biden administration officials have sought to walk a careful line in recent weeks, simultaneously voicing their support for Israel as a critical ally while expressing disapproval over the proposed judicial reforms.

“I want to stress that all of that concern comes from a place of respect, and friendship and admiration for the Israeli people, and for Israel as a country and Israel’s democracy,” John Kirby, a White House spokesperson on national security issues, told reporters on Monday.

There are a variety of worrying, dangerous consequences to the judicial overhaul, but one particular area is how the legislation will contribute to escalating violence with the Palestinians — and how the U.S. can engage both groups to calm tensions. 

Behind the scenes, administration officials have worked intensively over the course of the year to tamp down a volatile period of violence between Israel and the Palestinians — one that has prompted warnings of a third Intifada from CIA Director Williams Burns. 

And Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned last week that certain actions — without naming the Israeli government specifically — are making it “hard or futile” for the U.S. to mediate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. 

“I can say that both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority want us to be involved and engaged in helping and supporting them, to try to get to a period of calm,” Blinken told senators during an appropriations hearing on March 22. 

“At some point, if either or both sides are not doing what we believe is necessary to get there, it will be hard or maybe futile for us to do that,” he said.

His remarks came after Israel advanced legislation that would pave the way for Israel to reestablish controversial settlements in the West Bank that were disbanded nearly 20 years ago, in the wake of the second Intifada, and are argued to have been built on private Palestinian land. 

The legislative move represents a violation of commitments Israel recently made to hold back on any settlement activity for a period of four to six months, and triggered the State Department to summon the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. in a rare diplomatic scolding. 

At the forefront of these legislative provocations are far-right Israeli politicians, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who are the primary backers of the judicial overhaul package and powerful players in Netanyahu retaining his majority governing coalition.

Both men espouse extreme positions that dismiss Palestinian claims to territory in the West Bank, have used rhetoric inciting violence against Palestinians and brushed off criticisms that the judicial reforms jeopardize key discrimination protections for all Israelis. 

“There was violence in the last few years that was steadily increasing, but this government has absolutely taken steps to further inflame tensions, when it could have been working to reduce them,” said Jonathan Lord, a senior fellow and director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). “The introduction of individuals like Smotrich and Ben Gvir into positions of power have altered Israeli policies, and public speech in a way that is setting Israel’s security back decades.”

U.S. lawmakers have been raising alarm for weeks. 

Earlier this month, 92 House lawmakers wrote a letter to Biden urging the president to make clear that the U.S. opposes any attempts by the Israeli government to annex territory in the West Bank in fear of the march towards the judicial overhaul. 

“Stripping the judiciary of its check on the governing coalition would empower far-right lawmakers seeking to entrench settlement of the West Bank and advance a pro-annexation agenda, undermining the prospects for a two-state solution and threatening Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state,” the lawmakers wrote. 

At the same time, more than a dozen Jewish House lawmakers wrote to Netanyahu directly to urge a suspension of the judicial reforms. 

Lord, of CNAS, said that the violent picture emerging from Israel and inflamed by politicians like Smotrich and Ben Gvir is testing U.S. solidarity with Israel, which has increasingly grown partisan — with Democrats more critical of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians and bleeding into U.S. support for military assistance. 

Lord pointed to the drawn-out process for Congress to pass supplemental funding for Israel in March 2022 to provide $1 billion in assistance to fund the Iron Dome missile defense system that was largely depleted after an intensive, 11-day round of fighting with Hamas in the Gaza Strip during May 2021. 

The air defense system — which has a 97 percent interception rate — is revered as an unprecedented security and diplomatic tool for allowing Israel to withstand incessant rocket attacks without triggering a larger Israeli military response.

Despite the benefits of the Iron Dome, progressive Democrats homed in on the $1 billion supplemental package for stricter scrutiny, achieving a stand-alone vote on the funding that had earlier been part of a bigger spending package. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) exercised a hold on the bill over fiscal criticisms. 

“It wasn’t a cakewalk to get that billion dollars appropriated in 2022,” Lord said, warning that if the next round of violence is viewed as being instigated by Netanyahu and his far-right allies Smotrich and Ben Gvir, it’s going to animate even greater congressional pushback. 

“Now, under the context of this narrative, it’s hard to see how Congress races to fund Israel’s security, when it’s doing very little for itself in trying to preserve the peace,” he said.

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