Biden’s favorite Middle East ally is spoiling his democracy party

Joe Biden’s second “Summit for Democracy” has been billed as a chance for the president to champion democracy and call out the evils of autocracy around the world.

Unfortunately for Biden, Benjamin Netanyahu preempted his programming this week.

The Israeli prime minister’s now-paused plan to defang the judiciary of one of America’s staunchest democratic allies has injected an inconvenient set of circumstances into Biden’s democracy celebration. Biden and his aides opposed the judicial overhaul and said so as much in public (and just as forcefully in private). But they remain unsettled by Netanyahu’s actions even as he has put the idea on hold.

On Tuesday night, Biden said Israel had gotten itself into “a difficult spot” and that he hoped Netanyahu “walks away from it.”

Netanyahu, however, released a rather defiant statement indicating he would press ahead with some form of judicial change and that Israel “makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”

Underlying the fear inside the White House was a sense that the Netanyahu-led far-right coalition now governing the once-stable democracy in the Middle East has authoritarian leanings. Those concerns have deepened as Washington tries to hold together a democratic alliance against dictatorships in places including Russia, China and Iran, an archrival of Israel.

There are domestic considerations as well. The turmoil in Israel has given Biden a foreign policy headache right in the run-up to the 2024 presidential race. A longstanding public backer of Israel, Biden now heads a party in which a growing number of members are openly critical of the country.

Some of those Democrats say Biden needs to set aside his affection and go beyond rhetoric to pressure Israel on everything from safeguarding democracy to establishing a Palestinian state.

“Joe Biden has personally made clear repeatedly that there’s going to be no consequences, so why should Netanyahu change his behavior based on anything the United States says?” said Matt Duss, a leading progressive voice and Middle East analyst who has advised Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on foreign policy.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves 10, Downing Street.

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Despite Netanyahu’s push for the judicial overhaul, Israel was invited to participate in the summit, the second of which Biden has convened since taking office. But the Israeli leader was not expected to attend the leader-level meetings that Biden will helm on Wednesday, White House aides said. A person familiar with the issue said that Netanyahu was instead slated to speak on a panel during the week, but it was not clear if even that was finalized.

The White House tried to tamp down tensions with Israel on Tuesday. The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, said Netanyahu would at some point be invited to Washington, although a White House spokesperson said no meeting had been decided. Aides said that while they were encouraged Netanyahu paused his plan for the judiciary, they were still in “wait and see” mode about whether he would return to them in the next session of the Knesset. Allies do not expect Biden to be hurt politically by his handling of the matter.

“Where he has expressed differences with Israel — on West Bank settlements and on a judicial overhaul that could weaken Israel’s democratic foundations — he is on solid ground with the vast majority of Americans, and those in his party,” said Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel under then-President Barack Obama. “I suspect any rival, from any side, would find this issue to be hardly worth taking on.”

Even before the judicial overhaul plan was introduced, the Biden administration had grown alarmed by Netanyahu’s coalition government, which includes several figures with racist, homophobic, misogynist and religiously extreme ideologies.

For Netanyahu, a veteran Israeli pol, it was a means of getting back into the prime minister’s office as he tries to evade corruption charges in Israel’s courts. But inside Biden world, it appeared to be more than just an alliance of convenience. Some of Netanyahu’s allies back legislation making it harder to remove him from office, and his statement Tuesday suggested he was worried that his coalition might fracture if he is seen as kowtowing to Washington.

Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for decades and share a personal warmth and familiarity. “Hey man, what’s going on?” is Biden’s standard greeting to Netanyahu, aides said.

But they also have had sharp differences.

Their ties were strained by Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress in which he castigated the Iran nuclear deal worked on by the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president. And Biden has expressed private dismay that Netanyahu became such a fawning acolyte of ex-President Donald Trump and that Israel has largely stayed on the sidelines during Russia’s war on Ukraine.

White House aides arranged a call between the two men earlier this month with the hopes that Biden could nudge the prime minister toward abandoning his judicial overhaul.

Despite firm words from Biden, Netanyahu proceeded with the plan, rattling many American Jews concerned about Israel’s future. Administration officials, keenly aware of the importance of America’s security relationship with Israel, proceeded carefully, both publicly and privately warning Netanyahu that he should seek a compromise with those who oppose the overhaul.

Over the weekend, Netanyahu fired his defense minister for criticizing the judicial plan. The White House released a statement that echoed its past ones, reminding Netanyahu that “democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support.”

Yet the huge protests were what appeared to have forced Netanyahu to back down, at least temporarily.

Ahead of the Summit for Democracy, White House aides say that Netanyahu’s decision to relent on the judicial reform push was proof that Israel’s democracy was responsive and worked.

But the push itself still raises questions about the future of Israeli politics and injects more uncertainty into an already unstable region.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House August 10, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

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Israel is hardly the only country invited to the summit facing internal strife. India, for example, has seen serious democratic backsliding under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Poland, too, is facing questions about its democratic strength, as are countries such as Mexico and Brazil. The United States’ own democracy has been tested in the wake of the Trump presidency.

But the tension with Israel is the one with the most direct ties to Biden’s own political future as he eyes a re-election decision and possible rematch with Trump.

Biden has long been a traditionalist on U.S.-Israel relations. He has remained close to reflexively pro-Israel advocacy organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He has declined to return the U.S. Embassy to Tel Aviv after Trump relocated it to Jerusalem. And he has refused to impose conditions on the billions of dollars in U.S. security assistance the United States provides to Israel.

Those moves by the president — who has also received the backing of the more progressive pro-Israel advocacy group J Street — has run counter to the budding sentiment within the Democratic Party.

A growing number of liberal voices are critical of the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians. And a Gallup poll released this month showed that Democrats’ sympathies in the Middle East now lie more with the Palestinians than the Israelis, 49 percent versus 38 percent

These are shifts that could prove an annoyance to Biden on the campaign trail.

“At the end of the day, this issue is not a voting issue for 99.999 percent of people, right?” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street. “But I don’t think the majority of the Democratic Party is going to be okay if Israel takes steps that provoke tremendous outbreaks of violence and lots of people are getting hurt. I don’t think they’ll be okay as Israel undoes its judicial independence and the underpinnings of its democracy.”

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