In the first weeks of February, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides was urging the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both publicly and privately, to slow down its plan to reform the judiciary. On Feb. 19, Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli responded to Nides in a radio interview. “Mind your own business,” Chikli said. “You’re not the sovereign here. … We’d be happy to debate with you international or security affairs, but respect our democracy.”
Nine days later, Nides fired back. “Some Israeli official—I don’t know who he is, I don’t think I’ve met him—suggested that I should stay out of Israel’s business,” Nides said during an interview at a conference hosted by a think tank in Tel Aviv. “I really think that most Israelis do not want America to stay out of their business.”
Chikli may be a minister in Israel’s government, Nides implied, but so what? When the U.S. ambassador needs the opinion of the Israeli people, he turns to his friends among the Israeli elite, who are openly gleeful to see the United States support them against their domestic political foes. Nides’ intervention in domestic Israeli politics has become so open and self-assured that it is impossible to dismiss his behavior as the freelancing of an undisciplined envoy. His repeated public comments reflect the will of the president. In doing so, they also reveal, at best, a faulty reading of the American interest by Joe Biden.
Relations between the United States and Israel are now being shaped by the intersection of two very distinct crises. The first is the crisis in President Biden’s Iran policy. By any sane measure, the gambit to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal has failed. Two years of diplomatic outreach to Iran have given it breathing room to enrich uranium to 60%, if not higher (“weapons-grade” uranium is enriched up to 90%). Tehran is now estimated to be 12 days from producing enough highly enriched uranium to build a single nuclear device. Meanwhile, it is openly pursuing plots to kill former American officials while murdering protesters on its own streets and working closely with Russia on the production of more advanced killer drones.
In reaction to the rising threat from Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is calling on Washington to develop a plan B, one based on compelling Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program by presenting Tehran with a credible military threat. The Biden team, however, refuses. Despite the fact that Tehran treats every American overture with undisguised contempt, the Biden team insists that a “diplomatic solution” remains the preferred way to solve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program—that phrase being a euphemism for continuing to avoid any serious effort to pressure Iran economically or militarily. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is developing capabilities that will allow Israel, if necessary, to remove the threat on its own, while, at the same time, ordering sabotage operations inside Iran. He and Biden, therefore, are set on a collision course.
The second crisis is over Israel’s judicial reform, which for nine weeks now has routinely flooded the streets with hundreds of thousands of protesters. The reform’s opponents depict it as nothing less than the end of democracy, and many of them welcome intervention by the Biden administration. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, for example, recently urged J Street, a progressive organization that lobbies for the Iran nuclear deal, to encourage “every member of Congress …, every member in the administration” to bring their influence to bear against the reform.
But the Biden administration needs no such prompting. Even before Olmert issued this call, Ambassador Nides was endorsing the anti-reform agenda. In remarks broadcast on Feb. 18, he urged Netanyahu to “pump the brakes” on the reforms, which he depicted as an impediment to U.S.-Israeli cooperation against Iran. “The prime minister … tells us he wants to do big things,” Nides observed, referring to Netanyahu’s twin goals of normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia and thwarting Iran. “I said to … the prime minister, a hundred times, we can’t spend time with things we want to work on together if your backyard is on fire.”
But Biden’s refusal to get tough on Iran, not Israel’s judicial reform, is what is preventing the United States from working together with Israel. Even if all that Netanyahu’s opponents claim about the judicial reform is true—that authoritarianism is on the march and Israeli democracy hangs in the balance—the American interest still dictates building a coalition with Israel and Saudi Arabia to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. And Israel is a particularly desirable coalition member, because, unique among Middle Eastern powers, it has both the means and the will to carry out offensive countermeasures against Iran.
If Biden and his ambassador are busy adding fuel to the flames in Bibi’s backyard, Israel is not lacking for convincing voices who claim that the country is in fact being endangered by its elected government. “We are worried about the kids. We don’t want them to grow up in an undemocratic country,” a left-wing Israeli friend told me during a recent visit to Israel. A scientist with an international reputation, my friend served in a commando unit in the army. A patriot, he has put his life on the line for his country.
And by any conventional measure, he is a success. He leads his own company, which is doing quite well. His apartment in Tel Aviv would easily fetch $5 million on today’s market, probably much more. Israel has been good to him, yet he and his wife are seriously considering emigrating. “I’m simply terrified,” she said. “I cannot sleep. I check the news every five minutes to find out whether the sky is falling.”
One look at the distress on her face tells you that she is not posturing. She is not an Israeli version of a Whoopi Goldberg or a Barbra Streisand who famously threatened, in 2016, to emigrate to Canada if Trump were to win the election. Her terror is real, and it is typical of a great many Israelis, especially the kind with whom Ambassador Nides feels most comfortable—secular, liberal, and cosmopolitan.
So what, precisely, is the source of the terror that these people are feeling? The reform is five conflicts in one. First, it is a debate about the proper role of the Supreme Court, which has usurped authorities that rightly belong to the Knesset. Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition, now paints any attempt to change the court as a fascist putsch, but in 2016 he critiqued the court precisely as the reformers are now critiquing it. Indeed, any observer who examines the reforms with a traditional American understanding of checks and balances, cannot but conclude that many of the demands of the reformers are not only reasonable but also desirable.
Second, it is a flash point between the two major political blocs, between the “pro-Netanyahu” and “anyone but Netanyahu” camps. Having bitterly divided over the rise of Donald Trump, Americans are familiar with this kind of tribal split. So too are citizens of Great Britain, who similarly clashed over Brexit. Four elections in two years were fought over Netanyahu’s leadership. This most recent election did not end the fight, which is now being prosecuted by means of the struggle over judicial reform.
Third, the reform is a fight over the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the issue that, 20 years ago, used to be the dividing line between left and right in Israeli politics. Opponents of the reform argue that it will facilitate the annexation of the West Bank. “I’m a member of an ever-diminishing minority,” my friend the scientist told me, “but the occupation of the West Bank remains the top issue for me. Ruling over another people is destroying us from the inside.”
Fourth, the judicial reform plays on feelings of discrimination among the Sephardim, the Jews from the Arab world, who see the Supreme Court as a bastion of Ashkenazi European Jewish power and privilege. Like the two-state issue, the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide is no longer the heated political issue that it once was. Intermarriage and socio-economic changes have opened up the Israeli elite, which is no longer an exclusively Ashkenazi club. But old resentments die hard. A taxi driver from Morocco, who was in his late 50s, told me, “Just a few days ago Aharon Barak said that they searched and searched but couldn’t find Moroccans qualified to be judges.” He was referring to the former president of the Supreme Court of Israel and the legal mind who laid the groundwork for the expansion of the court’s powers. The quote the driver attributed to Barak is apocryphal, but the feelings of resentment that it expresses are real and still of some importance politically. Chikli, the minister whom Ambassador Nides insulted, offered a related observation when he said that politics is 10% ideology and 90% sociology.
Fifth, and most importantly, the conflict over the judicial system pits secularists against both the ultra-Orthodox and the religious nationalists. The Israeli journalist Amit Segal sparked an animated debate when he suggested that the key indicator of whether an individual will support the judicial reform is whether he or she identifies as a Jew first or as an Israeli—the idea being that those for whom the religious tradition is most alive are the staunchest supporters of the reform. Segal’s dichotomy is perhaps too neat, but there can be no doubt that the most enduring split in Jewish Israeli politics is sociological in nature. The religious-secular split will likely define left and right in the country for the next two generations, perhaps even longer.
The greatest single source of the terror on the Israeli left is the demographic, cultural, and political rise of the religious communities. “We are going to turn into the Islamic Republic of Iran here,” a professor friend of mine said, with no hint of irony in his voice. In historical terms, what we are witnessing is nothing less than the second stage of the Mahapach, the election in 1977 that brought Menachem Begin’s Likud Party to power. Begin’s election broke the monopoly that the Labor Party had exercised over the Knesset since the founding of the state. Yet while the traditional elite—Ashkenazi, secular, and associated with the Labor Zionist movement—lost control of the government in 1977, its offspring have continued to exercise influence over national affairs through the state bureaucracies, the universities, the press, and, importantly, the judiciary. (It is perhaps no accident that the usurpation of power by the judiciary took place in the 1980s, on the heels of the Mahapach.)
Mapped onto American politics, Netanyahu’s socio-political bloc would unite the “deplorables” of Donald Trump with the “people of color” on the progressive left. Imagine if Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump joined forces to advance legislation in Congress that would reduce the power complex that unites the government bureaucracies, the universities, and the press. Israel’s judicial reform will inevitably reduce the influence of the reigning elite, forcing it to become more responsive to a socio-political bloc that is both right-wing and religion-friendly. This bloc terrifies my friends in Tel Aviv, but it is not the “anti-democratic” or “authoritarian” behemoth that its opponents depict. It is exerting influence through electoral means and proposing reforms that fall within the bounds of established practice in parliamentary democracies.
Which brings us back to the role of Ambassador Nides. By intervening in domestic Israeli politics, Nides is demonstratively placing the power of the United States behind the opponents of the reform. However, after many weeks of blocking traffic, waving flags, and blowing shofars, those opponents have yet to propose a practical alternative to the government’s proposed reform. There can be no doubt that the intervention of Nides works to the benefit of Yair Lapid, who currently has no incentive to end the crisis. The polarization in Israeli politics has allowed him to rebound from his electoral loss and revitalize his anti-Netanayhu coalition. Recent polls suggest that, if the government were to fall, Likud would suffer in a new election. Lapid, no doubt, smells blood and dreams of bringing down the government with the tacit assistance of the United States.
If the goal of the Biden administration were to work with Israel to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, then Nides would either avoid any intervention whatsoever in Israeli domestic politics, or he would urge Lapid publicly to put forth practical proposals that could lead to a constructive compromise. Nides has demonstratively done neither. He has thereby helped to destroy the middle ground in Israeli politics, the ground on which politicians such as Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot stand. While they have associated themselves with the anti-reform movement, they are pragmatic military types, both of whom worked constructively with Netanyahu when each served as chief of the General Staff. Their public statements appear to imply an openness to compromise on the judicial reform, but in the current zero-sum atmosphere, they would face severe attacks from the left if they were to attempt to mediate.
The comparison with Poland is instructive. In 2015, Poland’s Law and Justice Party took power and embarked on a judicial reform, which the European Union and other critics, including prominent voices in the U.S. Democratic Party, depicted as a fundamental threat to democracy. “This is a serious issue because the requirements for cooperation within the European Union are the principles of the rule of law,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said of the reforms. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland ... we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet.” While prosecuting this “values-based” conflict with Poland, Merkel was working hard to improve relations with Vladimir Putin, by, among other steps, developing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would bring Russian natural gas to Germany.
Eight years later, against the backdrop of the Ukraine war, we can now see that Merkel’s fight with Warsaw was profoundly unwise. With respect to Russia, Poland is not just a front-line state, but also one of the very few in Europe capable of posing a credible deterrent to the Russian military. It is no exaggeration to say that the security of Europe depends on Poland more than on any country other than the United States. Merkel’s eagerness to pick a fight with Warsaw over judges while simultaneously courting Moscow, therefore, will go down in history as having helped persuade Russian leader Vladimir Putin that he could take Ukraine with impunity.
The Biden administration is now making an analogous mistake. If one year from now Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, who will say, “Well at least Biden tried to stop Netanyahu from reforming Israel’s judiciary”? Instead of tacitly encouraging the Israeli opposition to bring down Netanyahu, Biden should cooperate with him against Iran. That is the most effective way for the United States to defend not just Israel and America, but democratic values as well.
Michael Doran is Director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.