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March 27, 2023 3:54 pm

Biden Administration Welcomes Pause on Israeli Judicial Reform Package After Chaotic Day in Israel


avatar by Andrew Bernard

Israeli protesters chant in front of a burning fire at a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government’s plan for judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 27, 2023. REUTERS/Itai Ron

The Biden Administration on Monday welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that he would put Israel’s judicial reform package on hold until the Knesset reconvenes after the Passover holidays. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the announcement would create the time and space for compromise.

“A compromise is precisely what we have been calling for,” she said. “And we continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible. We believe that it is the best path forward for Israel and all of its citizens to find this compromise.”

Jean-Pierre added that the US-Israeli security relationship remained “ironclad.”

Netanyahu in his announcement of the pause on Monday also rejected the idea of civil war.

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Speaking at a separate press conference on Monday, the State Department denied allegations shared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair – who does not have an official position – that the opposition protests were being funded by the Biden administration via the Movement for Quality Government, an Israeli NGO opposed to the judicial reforms, in an effort to topple his father’s government.

“These accusations are completely and demonstratively false,” State Department Deputy Spokesman Vedant Patel said. “The Movement for Quality Government is an NGO, and it received a modest grant from the State Department that was initiated during the previous administration, and the latest dispersal of funds came in September of 2022 –  prior to the most recent Israeli elections. And this grant supported an educational program for Jerusalem schools that supplemented their civic studies curriculum.”

US National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications had earlier said in a briefing to reporters on Monday that the Biden administration did not believe that the situation in Israel would devolve into civil war. That possibility had been raised by Israeli President Isaac Herzog in a speech earlier in March. 

Natan Sachs, the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told The Algemeiner that the scale of the protests further undercut any notion that US backing has played a significant role.

“Half a million people coming out into the street at midnight was not because someone in Washington or anywhere else was paying them some money,” Sachs said. “And if they were, then they’d be bankrupt right now. Half a million Israelis came to the streets spontaneously because [Netanyahu] fired [Defense Minister] Gallant.”

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a Likud MK, after Gallant proposed that the judicial reform be put on hold because the political crisis was threatening Israel’s security and military preparedness.

In response to his firing, the Histadrut, Israel’s largest trade union and the union representing government workers, announced a general strike on Monday that closed the Israeli embassy and all eight of Israel’s consulates in the US.

As a result of Netanyahu’s pause announcement, the Histadrut lifted the strike, and Israel’s diplomatic facilities will re-open on Tuesday.

American Jewish organizations on Monday also welcomed Netanyahu’s pause announcement. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish Federations of North America issued a joint statement saying that they support efforts to build consensus around judicial reform.

“The last three months have been painful to watch and yet a textbook case of democracy in action,” the statement said. “We respect the political leaders, business executives, community activists, cultural figures, and ordinary Israelis who took to the streets, exercising their love of country, and their passion for democracy.”

The Brookings Institution’s Sachs said that while Netanyahu’s announcement might provide short term relief to the government, proposals by opposition leader Yair Lapid and others to craft an Israeli constitution based on Israel’s declaration of independence would not immediately offer a solution to finding compromise.

“I think it’s a viable and maybe the only sensible path forward in a longer term process,” Sachs said. “It would be very hard to write an Israeli constitution. It’s a very small but extremely divided society with deeply conflictual worldviews. It’s not just differences of policy. There are very different world views between the Orthodox and the Haredi community, and secular, and of course Arab citizens of Israel who have very different views on what the state even should be and what kind of regime it should have.”

Monday’s developments come as Israel has experienced 12 weeks of mass political protests that peaked on Saturday with upwards of 500,000 Israelis taking to the streets to oppose a raft of judicial reform measures introduced by Prime Minister Netanyahu in December.

Among the most controversial proposals included in the measures is a judicial override bill that would allow a simple 61-vote majority in the Knesset to overrule any ruling by Israel’s supreme court. Supporters of the reforms argue that they are a needed, democratic check on an out-of-control, activist judiciary, while opponents of the bills say that the proposals dangerously undermine Israel’s democracy by removing checks and balances on the legislature.

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