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Israel needs the US now more than ever

The impulse Americans may feel to distance themselves from Israel in its moment of truth is a big mistake

These are pivotal times for the state of Israel. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushes forward with his plans for a radical overhaul of Israel’s judiciary, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are back on the streets to protest. Many believe that the very future of Israeli democracy is on the line.

Disappointed with Netanyahu and his extremist partners, some Americans may be inclined to distance themselves from Israel. There could be no greater mistake. Rather than abandoning Israel in its moment of truth, Americans, and especially American Jews, should rally to the defense of their embattled sister democracy — just as they did when Israel’s existence was endangered in 1973. Those who care for Israel, from both sides of the partisan divide, should embrace the common cause of a democratic Israel.

One does not have to agree with, or even like, the policies of a particular Israeli government to stand up for America’s closest ally in the Middle East. For the last 75 years, Israel has been an anchor of stability and a bastion of freedom in a region deficient in both. A democratic reversal in Israel would not only deal a blow to the cause of democracy across the Middle East; by weakening Israel, it would likely undermine the U.S.-led security order in the region, which is already being challenged by Russian and Chinese advances, cheered on by a resurgent Iran.

Thankfully, Israelis were quick to grasp the central thrust of the highly technical “reform” proposals announced by the new minister of justice at the beginning of January: It was a brazen attempt to exploit the unique vulnerabilities of Israel’s constitutional structure in order to concentrate enormous power in the hands of a temporary political majority. 

They intuitively understood that in a democracy with few checks and balances — Israel has no constitution, bill of rights, presidential veto, Senate, or federal distribution of power — the Supreme Court was the only reliable guarantor of their liberty.

Israelis could also see that the hasty manner in which the judicial overhaul was presented and pushed through parliament was the antithesis of what a well-meaning constitutional reform process should look like. Constitutional amendments of the sort in the United States, for example, would require a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress, and then ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures in the U.S. In Israel, it was rushed forward along narrow party lines in a matter of weeks.

This is why almost a quarter of all Israelis — equivalent to almost 83 million Americans — have taken part in 29 weeks of protests against the government’s plan. This remarkable awakening brought the crisis to a head in late March, compelling Netanyahu to announce a “pause” in legislation and paving the way for representatives from the coalition and the opposition to convene for talks on agreed-upon reforms under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog.

Now, unfortunately, Netanyahu has reneged on his commitment to President Herzog and others that he will only advance constitutional reforms based on a broad consensus and is instead moving forward with the overhaul unilaterally. 

The first step is a restriction of the standard of ‘reasonableness,’ which has already been voted into law. This removes a central mechanism of judicial oversight over administrative decisions, paving the way for government officials to make what in the U.S. are termed “arbitrary or capricious” decisions. This is widely seen as a prelude to enacting the same radical plan proposed back in January, albeit in piecemeal fashion. 

Even though proponents of the government’s plan claim that the court has overstepped its authority in using this standard, most Israelis disagree. Sixty percent of the public oppose this diminution of the court’s authority — while less than half of those who voted for Netanyahu’s own Likud party in the recent November election support it. More importantly, Netanyahu refuses to commit to this being the last step in this contentious process. Only 25% of Israelis support continued pursuit of the overhaul on a partisan basis. A majority prefer to scrap the overhaul completely or pursue judicial reform only based on a broad consensus.

The key point is this: a full 70% of Israelis would support a new constitutional arrangement grounded in Israel’s Declaration of Independence with its promise of a Jewish state “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” that ensured “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender.”

This message should resonate among all friends of Israel. It is in all of our interests that Israel continues to be a beacon of democracy and stability in the Middle East, and that the U.S. and Israel continue to work together to widen the circle of peace in the region. Just as the U.S. political center, composed of leaders from both the Republican and Democratic parties, has been galvanized by the noble cause of Ukraine’s democracy battling for its freedom, the cause of Israeli democracy deserves to be embraced across the American political spectrum as well.

Thankfully, at this moment in time Israel is not in need of arms as it was in 1973, but we do need the moral support of our greatest friend and ally. When Polish workers founded Solidarity to protest Soviet domination and the policies of the Communist government, President Ronald Reagan showed his support by declaring Jan. 30, 1982, to be “Solidarity Day.” Five years later, as he welcomed President Chaim Herzog (father of our current president) to the White House, President Reagan had this to say about the special U.S.-Israel bond: “We are brought together by a shared commitment to democracy, to an open society, to individual achievement and economic progress, and to dignity and worth of each and every individual.”

True friendship is measured in time of need. Do not give up on Israel now.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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