If the US wants to make its mark on the future of Israeli democracy, it’s time it moved from words to deeds

As Israel’s hard-line coalition government passes legislation that would dramatically change 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 voiced his concerns to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about his anti-democratic agenda. The growing concern in America, however, has yet to translate into meaningful policy action.

So far, Washington has expressed his concern mainly with words. Senior Biden administration officials, including now the president himself, have emphasized the importance of protecting democracy for the future of US-Israel relations; Jewish members of Congress, both Democratic and Republican, called on the Israeli government to suspend the legislation; leading Jewish organizations have said they oppose the government’s actions; Prominent pro-Israel figures – including Alan Dershowitz and Michael Bloomberg – have issued dire warnings about the direction Israel is heading; and there were protests against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during his recent visit to Washington, DC

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 cleverly links Israel’s anti-democratic legislation to the extreme annexationist aspirations of key members of Netanyahu’s coalition, calls on Biden to “use all available diplomatic tools to prevent the current Israeli government from further damaging democratic institutions of the nation and undermine the potential for two states for two peoples.”

Those “diplomatic tools” are to be seen, however. In fact, the White House itself seems not even sure what it can or should do. His ambivalence was reflected in his handling of his decision to grant Mr Smotrich a diplomatic visa following his inflammatory call to “destroy” the Palestinian village of Hawara.

The administration’s reluctance in its approach is disappointing, even as the scale of the crisis in Israel grows by the day. Given the government’s intransigence in the face of popular appeals and even a compromise proposal presented by President Isaac Herzog last week, the pro-democracy camp hopes to see international support, especially from the US, not as international support. Deus ex machina but as a source of complementary empowerment and support for the domestic struggle.

To that end, in recent weeks we have both drawn on the expertise of several Israeli experts on foreign relations (and US-Israel relations in particular) to propose some concrete policy recommendations on how the Biden administration can. move from words to deeds. Some of the main ones are offered below:

At the start, President Biden should speak to the Israeli public — preferably through the Israeli media — on the importance of Israel’s liberal democracy. In addition, Biden administration officials should raise the issue at all formal engagements with their Israeli counterparts across all levels of work, including diplomatic, security, trade and economic. In addition, US lawmakers should promote a “Sense of Congress” resolution to emphasize Congress’s alarm about Israel’s anti-democratic legislation.

Forward, the Biden administration should create a direct link between Israeli democracy and the special relationship between the US and Israel. It is not enough to emphasize, as Biden said in his call with Netanyahu, that “democratic values ​​have always been, and must continue to be, a hallmark of the relationship between the US and Israel.” It is so important to emphasize how those democratic values ​​would suffer in the relationship. To that end, he should define red lines related to Israel’s democratic interest, specify the consequences of their transition, and give the Israeli government a positive horizon should it change. Needless to say, he should be ready to apply the consequences whenever a red line is crossed.

Meanwhile, the administration should continue to invite Netanyahu to the White House. Instead, he should invite President Herzog, who is formally Israel’s head of state and who, in the face of the current crisis, has shown his deep concern for preserving Israel’s democracy. The White House could use Herzog’s visit to celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary later this spring and use the occasion to reaffirm America’s support for a liberal, democratic and pluralistic Israel and signal that the two-state solution is a key element in protecting these values.

At the same time, the administration should publicly announce that it will not do business with far-right government members. As a result of increasing settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, such as last month’s pogrom-style attack in Hawara, it should cap US public and private funding of Israeli organizations that promote Jewish supremacist agendas, progressive racists and fascists, and those who expressly like violence to be designated as terrorist organizations.

This is also the time for administration increase his support for pro-democracy groups in Israel. It should, in particular, target those most likely to be seriously and immediately affected by the legislation, such as civil society organizations, independent media outlets, and Israeli Arab society. Support activities to support democracy (as recently launched in Central Europe) could include public events, professional exchanges, and increased USAID work.

Last but not least, the administration should emphasize that the judicial overhaul in Israel and the situation in the West Bank are intertwined, and dangerous,. In that context, he should continue his efforts to de-escalate on the ground, especially before the holidays of Ramadan and Passover, which is a very volatile period due to the partial overlap this year. He should also remind the Israeli public that there is no real sustainable democracy within Israel without an end to occupation and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he should mobilize regional and international actors to make some progress towards the two-state solution.

These are just a few possible actions the Biden administration can take; there are certainly others that US officials can consider. Either way, there’s no more time for dithering. Israel is in danger, and the US – as a true and special friend – must help Israelis protect their democracy: not as a substitute for what we Israelis are already doing to oppose our government’s anti-democratic plans, but in our empowering and complementing current actions.

Dr. Nimrod Goren is a Senior Fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute and President of Mitvim – Israel’s Institute for Regional Foreign Policies; Yonatan Touval is a senior foreign policy analyst at Mitvim – Israel’s Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. The authors would like to thank Dr. Ehud Eiran and with Dr. Roee Kibrik for their contribution to the above suggestions.

Photo by Saeed Qaq/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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