Like typical legislative reforms that allies of the United States take up from time to time, America's initial posture toward the judicial reforms proposed by the Netanyahu government complied with the expected 'its a domestic Israeli issue.' Immediately after meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January, Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized that "building a consensus for new proposals is the most effective way to ensure that they are accepted and last" and praised Israeli democracy. Two weeks later, in a column published by Tom Friedman, he quoted from a conversation between him and President Joe Biden, also in reference to the judicial reform, "The changes in the legal system in Israel must be carried out by broad consensus." Words in a similar spirit were also heard throughout that period from US Ambassador Tom Nides, White House spokesmen and others.
However, two events in the West Bank Palestinian village of Huwara triggered a significant change in the American approach to Israel.
The first, after the attack at the end of February in which brothers Hillel and Yagel Yaniv were killed, a handful of Jews rioted and caused destruction and set dozens of houses and cars on fire. The second, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich's call to "delete Huwara."
These events proved to be too much for the typical American patience and diplomacy, which has been on full display in recent months amid an increase in Palestinian terror attacks that has resulted in 25 Israeli deaths and dozens of terror attacks in 2023 alone. But, regarding Huwara, the US State Department criticized these events as "irresponsible, offensive and repulsive." State Department spokesman Ned Price later said that "the United States views the statements of Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog positively, but expects the Israeli government to take full responsibility and prosecute those responsible for the attack in Huwara, in addition to compensation for homes and property."
Following the events of Huwara, US President Joe Biden became more aggressive in his approach toward the judicial reform. The administration transitioned from expressing concern about the reforms to a more confrontational approach as Biden said that Netanyahu should "back off" from the reform and added "I am worried and want them to sort it out. They cannot continue on this path and I have made that clear."
The spiraling of relations with Biden continued when the president described the current Netanyahu government on CNN as "the most extreme that he can remember." Outgoing ambassador Nides said that "the Biden administration should intervene to prevent Israel from going off course with the reform of the justice system." Nides emphasized that the president urged Netanyahu to slow down and come to talks with the opposition." In Nides' view, "the goal of intervention is to prevent Israel from going off the rails." The statement was not retracted by the White House.
Tom Friedman's recent column revealed that in next week's scheduled meeting between Presidents Biden and Herzog, the American president is expected to convey a message to Herzog that can be reasonably viewed as a threat that the interests of the two countries have diverged and that the ties between the countries should be reevaluated. Further, the column noted, that in the US government's view, "the Israeli government's conduct definitively drops the fiction that Israel is interested in a two-state solution."
Despite its messaging on judicial reform, it is clear that the administration is even more alarmed by the situation in the West Bank than they are about any other Israeli domestic issue. And so, after the events in Huwara, it became clear that the reform and the (inaccurate) corollary "Democracy is Under Attack" would become some of the kindling that – combined with the fuel of irresponsible behavior and statements made around Huwara –led to the fire of the new US aggressive stance toward judical reform and the pressure om Israel to prosecute 'Jewish rioters' (while refusing to do the same the many terrorists planning and committing attacks against Israelis). It is clear that the fire was lit in Huwara.
Shared values and shared interests have long been the foundation of US-Israel relations. The US withdrawal from the region has diminished its interests in the Middle East. Now the Americans maintain that the violent behavior of Jewish rioters against Palestinians and the irresponsible statements of ministers tarnish those shared values. The American opposition to the judicial reform is a result of a tragic and widely condemned event that took place in the West Bank.
To restore neutrality in the White House regarding Israel's internal affairs, it is crucial to demonstrate that the Israeli presence in the West Bank is non-violent, does not seek to harm anyone, and has the ability to foster growth and well-being for both Palestinians and Israelis. Will the Biden administration be willing to consider that possibility?
- Oded Revivi is the mayor of Efrat, former chief foreign envoy for the Israeli mayors in Judea and Samaria and a supporter of the “Peace to Prosperity” Plan
First published: 13:17, 07.13.23