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Israeli Democracy and the Future of U.S.-Israel Relations
This is the third in a limited series of weekly posts on Israeli politics.
The protests in Israel—now in their 39th week and counting—sparked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul are reshaping Israel in ways that will not be fully appreciated until the crisis is over. Israeli politics will continue to realign over Netanyahu’s criminal indictments, Israeli society is contending with questions about democracy and the relationship between a state and its citizens, and Israelis are facing down long-festering issues surrounding religion and state as well as the rights and responsibilities accorded to different groups that were previously tamped down.
The upheaval is not limited to Israel: outside actors have new questions about longstanding assumptions regarding Israel’s stability and embrace of liberal norms and values. Nowhere are these questions more important than in Washington, where the past ten months have been marked by odd contradictions and cognitive dissonance in the U.S.-Israel relationship. On the one hand, President Joe Biden has exhibited an uncharacteristic coolness toward Netanyahu, waiting until the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September to hold his first sit-down with his Israeli counterpart—and having it in New York rather than in Washington. Biden and his advisers have also expressed public discomfort with Netanyahu’s efforts to scale back the judiciary’s oversight powers over the government, the Israeli police’s sometimes rough treatment of Israeli protestors, and the far-right extremists whom Netanyahu has brought into his government as ministers.
On the other hand, by some measures the U.S. has never worked so intently on policies that will benefit Israel, and by extension Netanyahu’s own political fortunes. Military cooperation is at an all-time high, Israel will likely enter into the coveted visa waiver program, and Biden is expending enormous effort to secure an agreement with Saudi Arabia that will include full normalization with Israel. For much of Netanyahu’s current tenure, the administration has dealt with Netanyahu as if there is no larger U.S.-Israel relationship and has dealt with the larger U.S.-Israel relationship as if there is no Netanyahu. At bottom, the U.S. seems unsure how to handle Israel’s democratic crisis or if it even matters for American policy.
Leaving aside the question of whether and how Israeli democracy should be a U.S. concern, the protest movement and its aftermath will make Israeli politics far more complicated for American policymakers to navigate. The traditional dividing line in Israeli politics has been the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with all of its related issues of security and territory. Whether an American president was dealing with a right-wing or a left-wing Israeli prime minister, it was easy to assess what types of measures the Israeli government would be prepared to carry out in an area that has historically been a central U.S. focus.
As a result of the current political crisis, however, Israeli positions on the West Bank and the Palestinians no longer align so neatly with the traditional political divide. The previous Israeli government was led by Naftali Bennett, who popularized the idea of annexing the West Bank’s Area C, and Yair Lapid, who publicly supports a two-state outcome; the current opposition contains Merav Michaeli, a traditional left-wing dove, and Gideon Sa’ar, who would be on the right-wing of the current government on the question of the West Bank and the Palestinians were he in it. The fact that—in an echo of U.S. politics—the central divide in Israel’s political system for the foreseeable future will be over populist nationalism and adherence to state institutions even when Netanyahu is long gone from the scene means that American foreign policy will have to contend with Israeli governments whose positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are shifting and less predictable.
This Israeli political realignment has substantive implications for U.S. policy. In the past, frustrations with Israeli policies toward the Palestinians were often outweighed by Israel’s strong adherence to democracy and unquestioned military prowess. On the questions of values and interests, there was a clear consensus that Israel checked both boxes. The upheaval caused by Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plans makes this consensus murkier. Biden’s repeated exhortations not to advance such far-reaching changes without consensus and reminders about the need to uphold shared democratic values are not limited to the president, or even to members of Congress. A recent Associated Press poll found that only 32 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that Israel is “an ally that shares US interests and values,” which should not come as a surprise in light of the Israeli government’s plans, or a coalition with a Knesset member who described an imprisoned Israeli terrorist who killed Palestinians in a firebomb attack as a “holy righteous man” while speaking at a fundraiser calling for his release.
The judicial overhaul has also potentially damaged Israel’s military standing, which should be a concern and a complication for the U.S. Questions about IDF preparedness in the wake of a movement by reservists to end their service are speculative, with unknowable answers. But it does not seem coincidental that the IDF has suffered a number of embarrassing incidents and setbacks as the judicial overhaul controversy has raged, ranging from an infiltration along the Egyptian border in June that left three IDF soldiers killed to Lebanon’s Hezbollah pitching tents on Mount Dov in Israeli territory. These errors take place amidst a surge in Iranian-funded Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad activity in the West Bank and an increasingly open Iranian presence on Israel’s northern borders. Israel remains by any measure the region’s strongest military power, but the willingness of other actors to test the boundaries of Israeli deterrence creates new challenges for the U.S. as well.
The lesson of the past year for the United States is that Israeli security and Israeli democracy are not identical, but they are also not wholly distinct. Perceptions of eroding Israeli democracy affect perceptions of Israeli political stability and in turn invite military and security challenges. Questions about Israel’s democratic standing raise questions about the IDF’s ethos as a “people’s army” and whether the system where Israelis suspend adulthood by three years to perform military service remains sustainable if those mandatory conscripts do not trust their leaders’ democratic bona fides. In light of this reality, the United States should reorient its thinking about Israeli security and democracy, treating them as two sides of the same coin rather than as separate currencies altogether.
This shift can be implemented in the context of the Biden administration’s current focus on Israel-Saudi normalization. With Netanyahu, American diplomats should stress the connection between the health of Israeli democracy and perceptions of Israeli stability, which make Israel a more attractive partner for normalization. The administration should also insist that another key component of Israeli democracy—reducing Israel’s presence in the West Bank on the way toward a viable two-state outcome—is a necessary element for any sustainable Saudi normalization agreement. For all of the focus on how Israel’s judicial overhaul will impact Israeli democracy, the long-term occupation of the Palestinians remains Israeli democracy’s shining black eye. Using normalization as an opportunity to improve Israeli security and also Israeli democracy would demonstrate that the United States views both as equally important.
If, to borrow a Biden administration phrase in a different sphere of Israeli policy, the U.S. states its desire to promote equal measures of security and democracy for Israelis, it will signal to Israeli leaders that the democracy angle is something that the U.S. takes seriously. The “unshakeable and unbreakable” U.S.-Israel bond is treated as a given, but it will be increasingly tested if the current trajectory continues. If that bond is going to remain—and remain strong—the U.S. must stress the value not only of Israeli security but also the value of Israeli democracy to U.S. interests in the Middle East and across the globe.