As Israel’s hardline coalition government is ramming through legislation that would radically alter the country’s political character and system of government, alarm bells are finally ringing in Washington. Even President Joe Biden has finally picked up the phone and expressed his concern to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about his anti-democratic agenda. The growing American apprehension, however, has yet to be translated into meaningful policy action.
So far, Washington has displayed its concern mostly with words. Senior Biden administration officials, including now the president himself, have emphasized the importance of safeguarding democracy for the future of U.S.-Israeli relations; Jewish members of Congress, both Democratic and Republican, have called on the Israeli government to suspend the legislation; leading Jewish organizations have stated their opposition to the government's actions; prominent pro-Israel figures — among them Alan Dershowitz and Michael Bloomberg — have issued stark warnings about the direction Israel is heading; and protests have taken place against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during his recent visit to Washington, D.C.
In a significant development earlier this month, more than 90 House Democrats signed a letter to President Biden urging him to take action. The letter, which wisely binds Israel’s anti-democratic legislation with the annexationist aspirations of key members of Netanyahu’s coalition government, calls on Biden “to use all diplomatic tools available to prevent Israel’s current government from further damaging the nation’s democratic institutions and undermining the potential for two states for two peoples.”
What those “diplomatic tools” might be, however, remains to be spelled out. Indeed, even the White House itself seems uncertain as to what it can or should do. Its ambivalence was made manifest by the way it handled its decision to grant a diplomatic visa to Mr. Smotrich in the wake of his incendiary call to “wipe out” the Palestinian village of Hawara.
The administration’s hesitation about its approach, even as the magnitude of the crisis in Israel is growing by the day, is disheartening. Given the government’s intransigence in the face of mass popular appeals and even a compromise proposal presented last week by President Isaac Herzog, the pro-democracy camp is expecting to see international backing, especially by the U.S., not as a deus ex machina but as a source of empowerment and complementary support to the domestic struggle.
To this end, over the past few weeks the two of us have drawn on the expertise of a number of Israeli experts on foreign relations (and U.S.-Israeli relations in particular) in order to suggest some concrete policy recommendations on how the Biden administration can move from words to deeds. Some of the key ones are offered below:
First, President Biden should address the Israeli public — preferably through an Israeli media channel — on the importance of Israel’s liberal democracy. Biden administration officials, moreover, should raise the issue at all formal engagements with their Israeli counterparts across all working levels, including diplomatic, security, trade, and economic. In addition, U.S. lawmakers should advance a “Sense of Congress” resolution in order to underscore congressional alarm at Israel's anti-democratic legislation.
Next, the Biden administration should create a direct linkage between Israel's democracy and the U.S.-Israel special relationship. It is not enough to underscore, as Biden reportedly did in his call with Netanyahu, that “democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship.” Just as important is to emphasize how the relationship would suffer absent those democratic values. To this end, it should define red lines pertaining to Israel's democratic well-being, spell out the consequences for passing them, and present the Israeli government with a positive horizon should it change course. Needless to say, it should be ready to implement the consequences each time that a red line is crossed.
Meanwhile, the administration should continue holding off on inviting Netanyahu to the White House. Instead, it should invite President Herzog, who is formally the Israeli head of state and has been demonstrating in the face of the current crisis his deep concern for preserving Israeli democracy. The White House could use Herzog’s visit to celebrate Israel's 75th anniversary later this spring and use the occasion to reiterate American support for a liberal, democratic, and pluralistic Israel and underscore that the two-state solution is a key element in safeguarding these values.
At the same time, the administration should publicly announce that it will not conduct any business with far-right government members. In the wake of rising settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, such as last month’s pogrom-style attack in Hawara, it should also put caps on U.S. public and private funding to Israeli organizations that advance Jewish supremacist, racist and fascist agendas, and designate those explicitly espousing violence as terrorist organizations.
This is also the time for the administration to increase its support for pro-democracy groups in Israel. It should focus, in particular, on those that would likely be most seriously and immediately affected by the legislation, such as civil society organizations, independent media outlets, and Israel’s Arab society. Supporting activities can include public events, professional exchanges, and increased USAID work to help support democracy (as was recently launched in Central Europe).
Finally, and no less importantly, the administration should stress that the judicial overhaul in Israel and the situation in the West Bank are inextricably, and dangerously, entwined. In this context, it should continue its efforts for de-escalation on the ground, especially ahead of the holidays of Ramadan and Passover, whose partial overlap this year makes for a particularly volatile period. It should also remind the Israeli public that no real democracy is sustainable within Israel without an end to occupation and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it should mobilize regional and international actors to reignite some progress towards the two-state solution.
These are only a few possible actions that the Biden administration can take; there are surely others that U.S. officials can consider. Either way, there is no more time for dithering. Israel is at a perilous juncture, and the U.S. — as a true and special friend — must step in to help Israelis safeguard their democracy: not as a replacement for what we Israelis are already doing in resisting our government’s anti-democratic plans, but in order to empower and complement our present actions.
Dr. Nimrod Goren is Senior Fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute and President of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies; Yonatan Touval is a senior foreign policy analyst at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. The authors would like to thank Dr. Ehud Eiran and Dr. Roee Kibrik for their contributions to the recommendations above.
Photo by Saeed Qaq/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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