Israel’s battle over overhauling its judiciary is shaking the country’s foundations

Nic Robertson

The National  /  July 28, 2023

Right-wing ministers’ divisive project is alienating allies abroad and undermining unity at home.

Like the ripples spreading from a pebble tossed into a pool, Israel’s Knesset vote, 64-0, to “rebalance” powers of judiciary and legislature has added fresh turbulence to the already choppy waters of this troubled country’s international relations.

For now, the waves of domestic protest in the build-up to the vote, now even more stormy since its passing, obscure the outfall with allies. In the long run, however, they may yet come to dwarf the impact of this historic decision on the country.

From its creation 75 years ago, Israel has endured rocky and at times violent relations in a region where some of its neighbours still challenge its very existence. That strength to resist and prosper has its roots in both its unity and its powerful allies.

Now those staples of stability are being put to the test.

Israel’s strongest friend, the US, has been urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his extreme right-wing religious coalition government to exercise caution, warning the vote, and others that are expected to follow, could undermine Israel’s powerful democracy by reducing the influence of the judiciary.

Mr Netanyahu and his government argue the reverse is true, and that as elected officials, unlike the judiciary, they represent the will of the people and therefore actually embody core democratic values.

The result however, if all the planned changes go through, will give Israel’s most hardline, right-wing government in its history the power to run roughshod over existing judicial checks and balances at a time when the government’s relations with Palestinians are at their lowest ebb in recent memory, and tensions over aggressive Israeli security operations and proposed settlements on occupied territory are at their highest in a generation.

The US State Department’s reaction was swift, echoing views from the White House: “It was unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority,” adding “we believe changes of this magnitude ought to be made with really the broadest consensus possible and that did not happen here.”

The reality is, Netanyahu, who had a pacemaker inserted in his chest 48 hours before the vote, has been on rocky ground with the White House since he got back into office late December last year and cobbled together his extreme-right coalition.

Last week it was Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog, not Netanyahu, who got an invite to the White House to meet President Joe Biden. The intention was to ease some of the growing tensions and potentially persuade this vital ally on the potential consequences of ignoring US concerns.

Biden did get to show his pro-Israel credentials. But Herzog, whose role is mostly ceremonial, doesn’t have the powers Netanyahu does and if he was given a message of caution he wasn’t, it appears, able to make it stick when he got home.

On the eve of Herzog’s visit, Biden did extend a slightly ambiguous invite to Netanyahu for later in the year. Whatever form it takes, it is unlikely to be smooth sailing when it does happen. Biden has described this Netanyahu government as “one of the most extremist” in 50 years.

Netanyahu and his conservative religious and settler coalition appears to be straining the democratic values Biden came into office championing, and that until recently Israel seemed to share.

Aaron David Miller, a seasoned US diplomat who has served several different Democrat and Republican administrations, says Biden is in a bind: “What you have here is a president who is waking up to the fact that that he’s no longer dealing with the old Benjamin Netanyahu, the risk averse, cautious [one] who takes one step forward and two steps back. He’s dealing now with a desperate Benjamin Netanyahu, risk-ready, determined for any number of reasons to keep this government, this extreme right-wing government.”

The personal stakes for Netanyahu are huge. Out of office he faces a number of legal challenges that, although he dismisses, could land him in jail if proven. Current polling in Israel predicts if elections were held today  Netanyahu could not form a government.

Miller predicts Biden’s current pressure is unlikely to bend the trajectory of Netanyahu’s collision: “He must maintain this coalition filled with radical fundamentalist extremist ministers, even at the risk of undermining destroying Israeli institutions, undermining the cohesion of the country and injecting a fair amount of tension into us Israeli relations.”

Others among Israel’s staunch allies, like the UK, have also responded by urging the Israeli government to “build consensus and avoid division”, and to preserve the independence of its judiciary.

The US, like the UK, has been struggling to work out how best to handle Mr Netanyahu.

In March, the UK and Israel signed a “landmark agreement deepening tech, trade and security ties”, saying the countries were “committed to a modern, innovative, forward-looking relationship”. Yet four months later in July, the UK, alongside Australia and Canada, was publicly criticizing Netanyahu’s policies, saying Israel’s expansion in the West Bank was an “obstacle to peace”.

It is hard to see how the waves this Netanyahu government has set in motion can ultimately push his goal of expanding the Abraham Accords signed three years ago with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco safely ashore, let alone Netanyahu’s aspiration of what he calls “expanding the circle of peace” to include Saudi Arabia.

His government has already faced criticism from the UAE for its handling of tensions with Palestinians, an area in which several of his hardline ministers goad Netanyahu to get even tougher.

For now, Israel’s allies are likely to look on with increasing alarm. According to Miller, the potential domestic political cost of an ugly spat with Israel’s Prime Minister just as Biden is about to enter an election cycle is a risk he is unlikely to take: “He has no desire and seems to me to impose any costs or consequences, not just on the issue of Israeli internal politics, but on what the Israeli government is doing in the West Bank, which is pursuing a set of annexation in policies in everything but name so yeah, I think it’s going to be very difficult for Biden to continue to walk that line. But I believe he will.”

If Israel’s allies are unclear about how to handle the situation, Israel’s enemies are applauding the tumult. Neighbouring Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah claimed, not for the first time, that Israel is self-destructing, and on a “path of collapse and fragmentation”.

Unlike a single pebble in thrown in a pond, the ripples Netanyahu’s government is creating are accumulative: pebble, followed by stone, followed by rock. They are not going to ebb quickly to insignificance.

At worst, they could erode Israel’s democratic foundations and drown out the supportive voices of even its staunchest allies.

At a minimum, they will bring additional and unwanted turbulence to the increasingly fragile world order where China exploits America’s diplomatic missteps and Russia brazenly invades its neighbour, throwing out its own destabilizing tsunami of harsh economic peril.

Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor