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Tuesday News Bulletin 03/14/23

Welcome to the Tuesday News Bulletin! Every Tuesday, we publish original reporting on Israel/Palestine by our staff and contributing writers, which goes directly to our newsletter subscribers. The Tuesday News Bulletin also serves as a forum for aggregating stories Jewish Currents staffers are tracking, with plenty of links to other publications so you can keep up with everything happening on our beats.

This article is by Jewish Currents contributing editor Joshua Leifer.

Joe Biden, then vice president, greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016.

Debbie Hill / Associated Press

March 14th, 2023

Even before Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power in November 2022, the Biden administration began working behind the scenes to try to contain the right-wing Israeli prime minister and his more extreme political partners. In October, ahead of the Israeli elections, AIPAC stalwart Sen. Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Netanyahu to warn him against forming a coalition with Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right Kahanist Jewish Power party. Netanyahu ignored him. In November, with coalition negotiations ongoing, US officials urged Netanyahu not to appoint Bezalel Smotrich, hardline settler leader of the Religious Zionism party, as defense minister. Netanyahu appointed Smotrich finance minister instead, but still granted him substantial authority within the ministry of defense. Last month, as Netanyahu prepared to give Smotrich power over the Civil Administration, the Israeli body that oversees the occupation of the West Bank, US officials warned that they would consider this a step toward annexation. Again, Netanyahu ignored them, and Smotrich officially took the reins. In each case, the Biden administration’s maneuvering proved ineffective at stopping Netanyahu from empowering his far-right allies.

Now, as Netanyahu’s government pushes forward with its plan to strip the country’s judiciary of its independence—sparking unprecedented protests in cities across Israel—left-wing and liberal activists in Israel and the US are calling on Biden to intervene. Yet there is little indication that the Biden administration will do so—or that it can. It is not only that Biden’s personality, along with domestic political concerns, make any dramatic measures to pressure Israel highly unlikely. The US government’s longstanding, unconditional commitment to Israel’s defense—a policy that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called “sacrosanct”—all but guarantees that the Biden administration’s response to the Netanyahu government’s “judicial revolution” will fall far short of deterring the Israeli prime minister or holding his government accountable.

Biden “will go to great lengths to avoid a sustained public confrontation” with Israel, said Aaron David Miller, a veteran former advisor to six secretaries of state. From the Biden administration’s perspective, he noted, any dramatic measure taken in response to Israeli actions would risk spurring a Republican backlash as the 2024 US election campaign enters its initial stages. In terms of geopolitics, Miller added, “Israel and the Palestinian issue is way down on the list of priorities” as the war in Ukraine grinds on and the US presses toward great-power conflict with China. Then there is Biden himself, who “is not a confronter,” Miller said. A dependable ally of establishment Jewish groups, Biden has long worked to shield Israel and successive Netanyahu governments from consequences for human rights violations. “His pro-Israeli credentials and sensibilities are inextricably tied up with his DNA,” Miller said. “On the narrow question of judicial reform, I think the administration is not prepared to impose any sort of sanction.”

Yet if the Biden administration were willing to expend the political capital, “there’s a huge range of things that they could do to express their displeasure” with Israel, said Hadar Susskind, president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, a liberal Zionist organization. Two of the most severe diplomatic steps that a US administration could take, explained Alon Pinkas, former Israeli Consul General in New York, include recalling the US ambassador to Israel for consultation—a move that typically reflects a profound fissure in the relations between two countries—and abstaining from votes on resolutions criticizing Israel at the United Nations Security Council, which the US customarily vetoes. These measures would entail no material consequences, but would signal the US’s intense disapproval. While the former is unlikely, Pinkas acknowledged, the latter has happened before. In 2017, at the end of President Obama’s tenure, the outgoing administration abstained from a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, thereby allowing it to pass. A US abstention on declaratory resolutions is “sort of meaningless at the UN,” Pinkas said, “but it’s very meaningful in terms of the US–Israel relationship.” For the Obama administration, this was a signal of exasperation and discontent—though not of a shift in the US government’s overall friendly policy toward Israel.

Susskind also suggested that the Biden administration could signal its willingness to reconsider the terms of US military aid to Israel. While the US cannot cut military aid to Israel or impose conditions on its use overnight, Susskind explained, Biden could in theory announce the establishment of a State Department commission that would explore conditioning aid to Israel ahead of next year, when deliberations will begin over whether to renew or modify the current $38 billion Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two countries, which expires in 2029. Susskind named several additional “more targeted steps” that Biden could take, mainly reversing measures taken by the Trump administration. These include undoing former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision allowing settlement goods to be labeled as “Made in Israel”; reopening the US consulate in East Jerusalem, which has remained closed since President Trump shuttered it in 2019; and increasing US contributions to Palestinian civil society as a means of countering the effects of the 2018 Taylor Force Act, which slashed US funding to the Palestinian Authority. “They would all be clear, unequivocal signals that we won’t just sit here and do nothing,” Susskind said.

There is, however, no evidence that the Biden administration is considering any of the measures, big or small, that Susskind and Pinkas described. In fact, the Biden administration recently used backchannel maneuvering to avoid publicly criticizing Netanyahu’s government at the UN. In February, US officials successfully pressured the Palestinian Authority to abandon its push for a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements—after Netanyahu’s government announced the legalization of nine outposts in the occupied West Bank and the approval of 10,000 new settlement housing units. In shutting down the resolution, the Biden administration circumvented a choice between risking a spat with Netanyahu and Israel-advocacy organizations by abstaining or flagrantly contravening its own policy preferences on settlements by maintaining its customary veto. (Although multiple US administrations have officially opposed Israeli settlement construction, there is no precedent for a US administration going beyond abstention to support such a resolution. Since 1973, the US has vetoed UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel more than 53 times.)

To date, the starkest indication of the Biden administration’s displeasure with Netanyahu has been its withholding of a formal White House invitation to him since he returned to power. Typically, explained Pinkas, “when the secretary of state comes to Israel, he leaves behind an open invitation to visit the White House, and later they set up the dates.” But since Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s late January visit to Israel/Palestine, where he delivered a subtle rebuke of Netanyahu’s judicial reform plan, no such invitation has been extended. “That’s sort of a protest that’s taking place,” said Pinkas. This mild censure has had no perceptible effect on the Israeli government’s ongoing legislative blitz: On Monday, the Knesset advanced several of the most controversial parts of the judicial overhaul plan, including a measure that would prevent the Supreme Court from striking down any law passed with a majority of 61 votes, and another which would only allow the Court to strike down laws with a supermajority of 12 of 15 judges.

Even if Biden’s snub has telegraphed US displeasure with Netanyahu, it has not persuaded him to change his government’s course. Indeed, the Biden administration’s preference for non-confrontational measures all but ensures that Netanyahu will proceed with his coalition’s judicial overhaul. In any case, domestic political realities may leave Netanyahu little choice. He is now beholden to the hardliners within his own party and to his extremist partners within the governing coalition, whose demands he must heed to stay in power. “I don’t think he controls this anymore,” Pinkas said. The only realistic path to a different coalition configuration would be another round of elections. And that is a risk that Netanyahu—who hopes to remain in power to avoid being convicted of the corruption charges for which he is on trial—almost certainly won’t take. If this reflects the emergence of a new Israeli political paradigm, one in which the most extreme right calls the shots, the Biden administration has yet to adjust.

Ultimately, the proposed elimination of judicial review in Israel is simply not a matter on which the Biden administration is willing “to go out on a limb,” Miller explained. “The administration isn’t going to do any of these things,” he said of the various steps being discussed by opponents of the judicial overhaul, “unless the Israelis go qualitatively and quantitatively beyond anything we’ve seen before in their actions towards the Palestinians.” It is also very unusual for the US government to intervene directly in what it considers to be the domestic politics of an important ally—which appears to be how the Biden administration understands the judicial overhaul plan.

Yet in practice, the Netanyahu government’s attack on the judiciary is inseparable from the issue of the occupation. It is not the case that the former is merely a domestic matter, while the latter remains an international conflict. The settler right has not hidden the fact that the crippling of the judicial branch is meant to enable the realization of its territorial-maximalist agenda: the annexation of the West Bank and the forced transfer of Palestinians out of the territories under Israel’s control. The Biden administration’s tepid response to the Netanyahu government’s “judicial revolution” portends a similarly inadequate reaction to the eventual de jure codification of apartheid rule.

Palestinian farmers line up at an Israeli military gate in the West Bank village of Habla on March 12th to reach their land behind the separation barrier.

Ahmad Al-Bazz/Activestills

As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.

Here’s what else we’re tracking:
  • Israeli soldiers and settlers killed at least eight Palestinians over the past week. On Thursday, Israeli forces invaded the village of Jaba in the West Bank and killed three men; the army said the victims had shot at soldiers from a car. That night, a gunman affiliated with Hamas opened fire near a Tel Aviv restaurant, wounding three Israelis in an attack that Hamas said was a response to the Jaba raid. The next day, an Israeli settler shot and killed a Palestinian man on a farm near the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron. Israeli authorities said the man had approached the farm armed with knives and an explosive device. Hours later, the Israeli military killed a Palestinian teenager outside the city of Qalqilya, which is near Karnei Shomron. The army said the teen had thrown a fire bomb at soldiers. On Sunday, Israeli forces shot and killed three Palestinians who the army said had opened fire on them near the city of Nablus.
  • On Monday, Israel’s Knesset majority advanced three bills as part of their plan to weaken the country’s judicial system. One bill would restrict the power of the Attorney General to declare a prime minister “unfit” for office, while another would change the number of Supreme Court judges required to strike down a law from eight out of 15—a simple majority—to 12. The third bill would allow a Knesset majority to pass into law bills previously ruled illegal by the Supreme Court. The bills still need to pass two more Knesset votes to become law. Their advancement came amidst continued protests by hundreds of thousands of Israelis against the judicial overhaul plan, and warnings that the move could deter investments and donations to Israeli companies and causes. Last Monday, the Lichtenstein-based Dan David Foundation, which awards cash prizes to those who make “outstanding contributions” to humanity as well as to various initiatives in Israel, warned that they may stop making such disbursals to projects in the country if the plan to gut the judiciary becomes law.
  • On Sunday night, Israel’s far-right finance minister Bezalel Smotrich visited the US for the first time as a government official to address the Washington leadership meeting of the Israel Bonds organization, which encourages investors to purchase Israeli government bonds. Smotrich expressed “severe regret” for his recent statement that the Israeli government should “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara, which he made following the February 26th settler attack that destroyed homes and cars there and left one person dead. Hundreds of liberal Zionist and anti-Zionist demonstrators gathered outside the conference to protest Smotrich. Inside, seven members of the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow were arrested after praying in protest against Smotrich, while rabbis and students affiliated with the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace were forced from the hotel after calling for an end to US aid to Israel.
  • European diplomats from 17 different countries called on Israel earlier today to stop its plans to forcibly displace several Palestinian families from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem and hand the properties over to Israeli settlers. The diplomats also condemned Israel’s plans to continue demolishing Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem during the upcoming Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
  • Fifteen Republican senators claimed that the US Department of Education is funding “antisemitic” Middle East studies programs in a letter sent last Wednesday. The letter alleges that Middle East programs disproportionately focus on Israel and that their content is antisemitic under the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which critics say conflates antisemitism with criticism of Israel. “Taxpayer dollars should not fund antisemitism on college campuses, and Jewish and pro-Israel students should not feel afraid for being Jewish and expressing support for Israel,” wrote the senators.