What does Israel's judicial overhaul mean for its US relationship?

The White House called the passage of the bill 'unfortunate'

The US and Israel have long promoted their 'shared democratic values' as the core of their friendship. AFP
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The Israeli government's passage of judicial reforms that strip power from the Supreme Court is “unfortunate”, US President Joe Biden said on Monday.

His comments came days after Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Washington, stressing unity between the longtime allies.

The overhaul of Israel's top court comes as Americans' attitudes shift on the country, particularly its hardline policies towards Palestinians, in a change yet to be fully reflected in the generally pro-Israel US Congress.

“It is unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.

“The United States will continue to support the efforts of President Herzog and other Israeli leaders as they seek to build a broader consensus through political dialogue."

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Mr Biden had "publicly and privately expressed his views" that major changes in a democracy come through consensus.

Mr Biden last week welcomed Mr Herzog to the White House, a move some considered to be a political snub against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right government.

Mr Biden later extended a tepid invitation, without mentioning a White House visit, to Mr Netanyahu.

The bipartisan standing ovation during Mr Herzog's joint address to the US Congress last week suggests largely united support for Israel, but there is a sense of growing unease over Mr Netanyahu's latest moves.

Brian Katulis, senior fellow and vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told The National that the Biden administration's strategy to try to deter the judicial reforms “clearly didn't work".

“Everything that's been done to date has demonstrated that the US either lacks leverage, because this is such a heated internal issue, or it has leverage that it's not willing or capable of using,” Mr Katulis said.

He said stronger US actions “may not even matter very much".

The US “can pretend, and some will, that there's some sort of magic wand that can be waved here … but I think this takes on a life of its own in Israel, and [American] leverage is quite constrained at this point,” Mr Katulis said.

On the other hand, Hadar Susskind, president and chief executive of progressive Jewish-American group Americans for Peace Now, said Washington's next steps were “very, very important.”

Mr Susskind said that Mr Biden's reluctance to invite Mr Netanyahu to the White House has a “real and immediate” consequence.

Mr Biden has distanced himself from Mr Netanyahu, a longtime personal friend, and has so far evaded questions on whether the Prime Minister would receive a White House invitation.

Mr Susskind said the judicial overhaul could jeopardise a pending visa waiver programme between the two countries.

“This is not a moment where I think the administration should be extending special treatment to an Israeli government that's just gutted its own democracy,” he said.

Mr Katulis believes the judicial overhaul may affect US and Israel's shared goals of “expanding and deepening” Israel's relations with its Arab neighbours under the Abraham Accords.

He recommends the Biden administration should “raise the connection between these two issues” to the Israelis, and tell the US's longtime ally that it is “missing an opportunity here".

The 2020 Abraham Accords led to the UAE and Bahrain sstarting formal relations with Israel. Morocco and Sudan followed suit.

The White House vowed to expand the accords in its National Security Strategy released last year.

“The scenes of chaos inside of Israel are going to put a limit on how far, I think, many of the countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, would be willing to open up to Israel,” Mr Katulis said.

It “limits and constraints how far the regional normalisation and integration can go".

David Makovsky, director of the programme on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute of Middle East Policy, told The National that Washington will be closely watching what might happen in the Supreme Court.

“US-Israel relations are based on shared values like an independent judiciary and not just shared interests,” said Mr Makovsky, a former adviser to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under then-president Barack Obama.

“Therefore, US-Israel relations will be tested in the non-security spheres."

The damage to Israel's relationship with Jewish Americans, a largely liberal group, is profound, said Mr Susskind.

One of APN's board members told him that “unless they fix this, I'm never going back [to Israel]", he said.

And one of his friends who “is not professionally engaged” on Israeli issues, expressed concerns about their son's coming programme trip to the country.

“Israel has just demonstrated who exactly they share values with and it is not the majority of the American-Jewish community,” Mr Susskind said.

Updated: July 24, 2023, 9:08 PM