US Must Act to Counter Destructive New Moves by Netanyahu Government

June 18, 2023

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today announced two sets of moves that could severely undercut Israel’s adherence to the rule of law and imperil its future as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people. The decisions to move forward with eroding the independence of Israel’s judiciary and to take significant new steps toward the illegal annexation of occupied Palestinian territory must be met with a firm, meaningful US government response – one that goes beyond mere rhetoric.

First, the ruling coalition announced that it was resuming its push to advance controversial legislation to dramatically weaken the independence of Israel’s judiciary. Legislation could be advanced as early as this week to limit the Supreme Court’s oversight of government actions and to limit the basis on which it can strike down government decisions and appointments. The Netanyahu government’s anti-democratic agenda has spurred the largest protests in Israel’s history, with hundreds of thousands of Israeli protesters taking to the streets week after week to save their democracy.

Simultaneously, the Netanyahu government has announced that it will advance plans for around 4,500 new settlement units in occupied Palestinian territory. This move is regarded by many as a violation of international law, a major step toward the annexation of West Bank land and a violation of the spirit of the commitments Israel made to the United States, the Palestinians, Egypt and Jordan in the February 26 Aqaba Joint Communique aimed at preventing violence.

Perhaps even more concerning, the coalition on Sunday voted to approve new regulations governing the approval and promotion process of new settlement activity. These new rules will eliminate some of the key points at which elected decision makers have till now been able to intervene to stop or delay approvals, which they have done at times for security reasons or due to international pressure. This makes it virtually certain that the expansion of settlements will move forward at a faster pace than ever. Outrageously, far-right Minister Bezalel Smotrich — a settlement movement leader and self-described “fascist” who recently called for a Palestinian West Bank village that had been subjected to a pogrom to be “wiped out” — will oversee the management of this new process.

The Netanyahu government has also indicated that it may also seek other repressive changes in law. These would include allowing for the “administrative detention” without charge of Israeli civilians (to be used primarily, if not exclusively, against Arabs) — a tactic that has been used for decades in the occupied territories — and allowing more small towns to ban Palestinians citizens of Israel from moving in.

The magnitude and potential consequences of these anti-democratic, destabilizing moves are difficult to overstate. They are major advances in the Netanyahu government’s twin revolutions: one against Israel’s democracy and the other toward all-out annexation. They not only violate commitments to the United States and the rule of law, but take a sledgehammer to the shared democratic values and aspirations of the US-Israel relationship.

The Biden Administration must act decisively to protect democratic values, the rule of law, and Israel’s own long-term interests. Expressing mere disappointment or concern with the announced decisions will not suffice. The administration must move beyond rhetoric and take concrete steps, including:

  • Publicly restoring the longstanding, bipartisan US position that settlements are inconsistent with international law by expressly revoking the “Pompeo Doctrine;” reinforcing the differentiation between Israel and the West Bank through steps like restoring the bipartisan customs guidance on accurate labeling of West Bank goods; and making clear that binational research and related cooperation programs may not fund projects based in the settlements;
  • Making clear that the United States will not block accurate, appropriate criticism in international fora, including in the United Nations Security Council, of evictions, demolitions, forced relocations, settler violence, the construction of civilian infrastructure designed to benefit settlers and other acts of annexation; and
  • Investigating whether any US-origin military equipment has been used in connection with recent acts toward annexation like evictions, demolitions, forced relocations, settler violence and the construction of civilian infrastructure designed to benefit settlers and — if so — determine whether such use constitutes a violation of US arms export control and/or foreign aid law.

Beyond the administration, friends of Israel must not sit silently in the face of this assault on the country’s future. Pro-Israel organizations and lawmakers should make clear that these moves have the potential to fundamentally imperil Israel’s own future and to deeply harm the nature of its relationship with Jewish Americans and the United States.

To stand up for Israel now means to stand against these moves toward autocracy, illiberalism and annexation — and those who love Israel must rise to the moment.

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