Senior U.S. officials insist on waiting to see how radical Israel would become as it put together its most right-wing and religiously conservative government ever.
They emphasized “policies,” not “personalities.”
Nearly a month has passed since the establishment of a government under Benjamin Netanyahu, a former Prime Minister, and populated with ultra-Orthodox politicians. It is clear that there are new standards in extreme ideologies and controversial actions. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken arrives in Israel on Monday to take stock of the situation, but can he be effective given the Israeli government’s momentum?
Many in and outside of Israel fear the democracy that the country long claimed to be — often billed the “only democracy in the Middle East” — is in danger of being badly eroded.
“The 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence will be remembered as the year in which the country’s democratic identity was dealt a fatal blow,” the president of Israel’s Supreme Court, Esther Hayut, said in an angst-ridden speech earlier this month in the Israeli city of Haifa.
Tens of thousands of Israelis — young, old and mostly secular — have poured into streets every weekend this month to protest the changes Netanyahu and his coalition are planning that opponents believe will curtail civil liberties.
To add to the current volatility, there have been several spasms of the deadliest violenceThe West Bank and Israel in recent years. Israel conducted a raid in Jenin, the Palestinian capital, on Thursday. killing nine Palestinian militants and civilians. Twenty-four hours later a suspected Palestinian gunman shot and killed seven Israelis outside a synagogue in Jerusalem.
As tensions escalate, Blinken flew to Cairo Sunday. He will then hold talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah on Monday. This trip was planned prior to the violence.
Though Blinken is the most senior U.S. official to meet with the new Israeli government, he is one of several top officials who have attempted to sound out the incoming regime as the Biden administration seeks to de-escalate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and minimize the potentially damaging fallout from Netanyahu’s new policies.
Some quarters have criticized Blinken and other U.S. officials for being too cautious in their approach towards the new Israeli government.
“We will gauge the government by the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities,” Blinken said last month. But, he added, “we will also continue to unequivocally oppose any acts that undermine the prospects of a two-state solution,” the vision of an independent Palestinian state existing alongside Israel. These acts include the expansion of Jewish settlements within the Palestinian-claimed West Bank. demolitionsEvictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes.
Blinken also said he would emphasize the “shared values” of the United States and Israel — democracy and representation.
However, he has not yet publicly criticized the Netanyahu government.
According to Palestinian media and human rights monitors, Netanyahu and his Cabinet took the same punitive measures as Jewish settlers in West Bank who attacked Palestinians and their property on Sunday.
In the wake of the latest shootings, Netanyahu on Sunday announced plans to demolish the homes of two assailants, cancel their families’ social security benefits, expand gun permits for Israeli Jews and “strengthen” Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank — which could mean more military protection and other fortification.
Officials from the United States say that there is an additional danger to this latest violence. Instead of being the work of the militant Gaza-based Hamas organization, it is more “organic,” orchestrated by homegrown groups in the West Bank whose belligerence is fed by frustration, years of occupation and a belief that Palestinian leadership is ineffective.
The dilemma for Blinken, who is meeting with Egyptian, Israeli and Palestinian leaders while on his trip to the Middle East this week, is that the violence that has victimized Israelis makes it more difficult to raise with Netanyahu — publicly, but even privately to an extent — issues such as the imperative for a Palestinian state and the preservation of democracy.
Netanyahu government opponents will not be happy with the preservation of the status quo.
“Business as usual” is no longer sufficient, said Nimrod Goren, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington and president of Mitvim, a think tank in Israel that studies regional politics.
“We want to see the ‘values-based relationship’ in action,” he said. “We see our democracy being shattered very quickly and want to hear support from [Western] liberal politicians.”
Netanyahu and his coalition have launched their precedent-breaking campaign starting with Israel’s judiciary and legal system. They contend that much of the court system is overly politicized and are moving to reduce the Supreme Court’s position as a balance to the power of the Knesset, or parliament.
The proposal would allow a Knesset majority to override Supreme Court rulings. The proposal would give politicians a greater say in the selection of judges.
Many in Israel believe that the so-called reform was a scheme by Netanyahu to get rid of a case for criminal corruption against him. Critics claim that the court is the one who pushed for human rights legislation, and holds the government and military responsible for their actions.
In addition, ultra-Orthodox members of the Cabinet, enjoying unprecedented power thanks to Netanyahu’s deal-making coalition-building, want to inject more religion into education and make it harder for non-Orthodox foreign Jews to obtain Israeli citizenship. They also condemn LGBTQ rights.
“What [Netanyahu] is doing is nothing short of waging war on Israeli democracy, and if he succeeds, Israel may change forever,” retired veteran Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas said, writing in the Haaretz newspaper. “Rest assured, this is patently an effort to bring about regime change.”
Blinken prefers to concentrate on security and will not attack Israeli domestic policy, such as the judicial reform, according to aides. He is likely to continue to advocate for democracy and civil right more broadly.
Netanyahu and his conservative supporters dismiss most of these complaints as hyperbolic spin.
“The majority in Israel today is right wing and religious, and the minority is worried about their future,” said David Eliezrie, an Orange County rabbi who is director of the North County Chabad Center and is active in Israeli affairs.
Israel’s Supreme Court, for example, has long favored the left and the changes will impose “balance,” he said.
At a demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, protesters held a minute of silence for those killed in Friday’s synagogue shooting before speaking out on the dangerous trajectory they believe their government is following. The air was filled with both anger and resignation — and a sense of impotence.
”I feel that my country is coming apart,” said Yonatan Hazut, 29, a tech worker who lives in Tel Aviv. “Big demonstrations may not make a difference for politicians, but they would for investors and businessmen.”
Though Saturday’s protest was more subdued than the previous ones because of the synagogue attack, it was emphatic nevertheless.
“I have voted for Bibi Netanyahu all my life,” said Neta Naor, 65, referring to the prime minister by his nickname. “I don’t want a religious state here. It is very difficult for me to hear that many young people want to leave the country, that they feel they have no future.”
Tami Zer was a special correspondent and contributed from Tel Aviv.
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