Washington, DC – Tensions between American and Israeli leaders do not often play out in public.
But this week, United States President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded barbs over a plan by Netanyahu’s far-right government to overhaul Israel’s judiciary.
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Although the Israeli occupation was not part of the back-and-forth between the two leaders, analysts have said the public discord may present an opportunity to make more people in the US aware of the plight of Palestinians.
It could also further normalise criticising Israel in US politics, said Palestinian-American analyst Yousef Munayyer, who said Biden’s “significant statement” against Netanyahu’s judicial reform plan will have a “much broader impact” than that issue alone.
Munayyer said the direct criticism from Biden will boost already growing scepticism – especially amongst Democrats – of the idea that the close US-Israel relationship is based on “shared values” of democracy and freedom.
This “is the latest step in exposing that idea of shared values as a foundational myth of the relationship, which like so many foundational myths, once people realise it’s not true, they begin to entirely re-evaluate their positions towards these issues”, Munayyer told Al Jazeera.
Citing Jewish-American opposition to the controversial judicial overhaul proposal in Israel, Biden warned the Israeli prime minister on Tuesday that his government “cannot continue down this road”. Netanyahu hit back in a public statement, saying Israel is a sovereign country that makes its own decisions.
Israel’s judicial proposal, which critics have said limits the courts’ oversight of the government, had shaken Israeli politics and sparked nationwide protests. Netanyahu delayed passing the proposal this week amid widespread protests and US pressure, but the plan has not been scrapped.
Even some staunch Israel supporters in the US, including many Democratic Congress members and prominent Jewish organisations, have rejected the judicial reform push in a rare criticism of the Israeli government.
“If implemented, these reforms will dramatically weaken Israel’s democracy, eviscerating any meaningful checks and balances that provide a separation of powers – a backbone of secure democracies,” Reform Judaism religious leaders said in a statement in January.
Although Palestinians have been largely absent from this debate, Palestinian rights advocates say the unusual criticism of the Israeli government in mainstream US circles may help open further conversations about the country and its treatment of Palestinians.
They note that Palestinians have been gaining more sympathy in the US, particularly amongst young people and Democrats – a trend they hope the crisis will cement.
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a think tank in Washington, DC, said while Israel’s internal crisis will not alter the Biden administration’s overall position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it could ultimately affect US public opinion.
Biden, a self-proclaimed Zionist, has pushed for unconditional US support for Israel throughout his decades-long political career, despite pledging to centre human rights in his foreign policy as president. Israel, accused of imposing apartheid on Palestinians by major human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, receives at least $3.8bn in US military aid annually.
Zogby said when a US president confronts Israel as Biden did this week, “it shows it can be done.”
“And it shows that Israel responds to pressure,” he told Al Jazeera. “You also see hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrating against their government, all of which contributes to deeper questioning in the US about what’s going on in Israel.”
At the same time, in Congress, some legislators are trying to shift the focus back to the Palestinian issue when it comes to Israel.
US Congressman Jamaal Bowman and Senator Bernie Sanders are spearheading a push to demand that the Biden administration ensure US weapons are not used in Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, the Jewish Currents news website reported on Wednesday. While it largely focuses on Israeli abuses against Palestinians, the letter also invokes Netanyahu’s judicial reform proposal.
“This Israeli government’s anti-democratic mission to dismantle the rule of law is a threat to Israelis and Palestinians alike,” it read. “In addition to explicitly hateful, anti-Palestinian policies, this government is attempting to destroy the independent Israeli judiciary.”
Appealing to US public
But for the most part, US politicians have directed their criticism at Netanyahu’s judicial reform plan, not his government’s treatment of Palestinians. In fact, US officials often reassert their “ironclad” commitment to Israel.
Much like Biden, several Democrats in Congress have expressed concern for Israeli “democracy” and hailed the protesters without mentioning the country’s occupation of Palestinian territories, where millions of Palestinians live under Israeli government control without basic civil rights.
To be pro-Israel is to be pro-democracy.
A strong and independent judiciary is crucial to any democracy — including Israel's.
I applaud the thousands of Israelis who showed their opposition to Netanyahu's actions.
Israel cannot become an authoritarian state. pic.twitter.com/MpiYAHrjNC
— Congresswoman Madeleine Dean (@RepDean) March 29, 2023
Palestinians have been left out of the demands of the so-called “pro-democracy demonstrations” in Israel, as well. The Israeli Supreme Court, whose powers the anti-Netanyahu protesters have rallied to save, often upholds laws that target and repress Palestinians, analysts have said.
Nevertheless, Noura Erakat, a Palestinian-American activist and legal scholar, said Palestine advocates can use the crisis in Israel to underscore abuses of Palestinian rights.
“I think everything is an opportunity for intervention, even if it’s about disruption – to basically short-circuit the media narrative in order to highlight these things,” she told Al Jazeera.
Erakat added that many Palestinian commentators – through mainstream, alternative and social media – are making the case that Israel cannot be a democracy if it continues to oppress Palestinians living under its control.
She likened this moment to the era of Donald Trump, when his liberal critics consistently slammed the former US president’s domestic and foreign policies, opening a window for criticism of American support for Israel.
Erakat said it was frustrating that Biden and some pro-Israel groups came out strongly in criticism of Netanyahu only when internal Israeli affairs were involved, something she said demonstrates that Palestinians “don’t count” to them.
Munayyer also said it was “frustrating” that Israeli violations against Palestinians do not spur this kind of response from Washington, but he added that Palestinians should focus on pushing themselves into the conversation.
“We need to look at the ways in which the issue of Palestinian rights can appeal to American audiences through the prism of shared values,” he said.
“If this actually is important to the US-Israel relationship, it needs to be clear that there are no shared values without freedom for Palestinians and equality for Palestinians, and true democracy includes Palestinians.”