Amid judicial overhaul, Israelis don't notice American anger

National Affairs: The Disengagement repeal law was largely overlooked by the public this week, until the Americans took angry notice.

 ISRAELI ACTIVISTS carry a tent in the abandoned settlement of Homesh, in 2007.  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
ISRAELI ACTIVISTS carry a tent in the abandoned settlement of Homesh, in 2007.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Many Israelis probably scratched their heads late Tuesday evening when they heard that the country’s ambassador to Washington, Mike Herzog, was summoned to the State Department for a reprimand by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

What have we done this time? some probably thought.

This last happened in 2005

After all, it’s not every day that Israel’s ambassador to the US is called in for diplomacy’s equivalent of a scolding. The last time this happened was in 2010 when then ambassador to the US Michael Oren was dressed down following the announcement during vice president Joe Biden’s visit to Israel of plans to build homes in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, which sits just beyond the pre-1967 lines.

But back then everyone knew what Israel “did wrong,” at least what it had done wrong in the eyes of the Americans. The announcement at the time of plans to build the housing units was all over the news, as were indications of enormous American displeasure.

This time, however, the action that triggered America’s dismay – the repeal of the 2005 Disengagement Law as it applies to northern Samaria – flew very much under the Israeli public’s radar screen.

 Michael Oren at the Jerusalem Post conference. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Michael Oren at the Jerusalem Post conference. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

The repeal lifted the ban on Israeli citizens entering the area in northern Samaria where four settlements – Sa-nur, Homesh, Ganim and Kadim – were located, but stops short of authorizing the reestablishment of those communities. A vote of 31-18 passed the law – with opposition MKs Ze’ev Elkin and Gideon Sa’ar voting with the coalition – early Tuesday morning.

The law’s passage was duly mentioned in the hourly radio news bulletins, but it did not get prominent play in the morning radio news shows that are widely listened to by people on their way to work.

Instead, much more attention was paid to the Likud faction meeting the day before and disagreement over the coalition’s “softened” proposal regarding the appointment of judges, and to threats by the Likud’s David Amsalem from the Knesset podium to Police commissioner Kobi Shabtai that a commission of inquiry into the police’s handling of the recent protests will be established, and he will be held accountable.

In other words, the ongoing ruckus over the judicial overhaul continued to drown out everything else, including the passage of the Disengagement Law repeal. Amid all the judicial reform noise, very little else – with the exception of terrorist attacks – is currently registering with the public.

A storm in Washington

But because something does not register with the public does not mean it is without significance. Ironically, the Israeli public became aware of the significance of this vote only after it triggered a storm in Washington – and in Washington it did unleash quite the storm.

The issue, for instance, dominated Tuesday’s daily press briefing given by State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel. “The United States is extremely troubled that the Israeli Knesset has passed legislation rescinding important parts of the 2005 Disengagement Law, including the prohibition on establishing settlements in the northern West Bank,” he said.

He went on to say that this “represents a clear contradiction of undertakings the Israeli government made to the United States” 20 years ago to “evacuate these settlements and outposts in the northern West Bank, to stabilize the situation and reduce frictions.”

He also said that the amendment to the Disengagement Law is “inconsistent with Israel’s recent commitments to de-escalating Israeli-Palestinian tensions.”

“Coming at a time of heightened tensions, the legislative changes announced today are particularly provocative and counterproductive to efforts to restore some measures of calm as we head into the Ramadan, Passover, and the Easter holidays.”

And all that was before Herzog was called in to see Sherman.

Completely absorbed in the judicial overhaul debate

THAT SOMETHING which caused such ire in Washington went largely unnoticed in Israel indicates the degree to which Israel’s attention is completely absorbed and diverted by the judicial overhaul debate. This debate seems to be overtaking and coloring everything.

Consider the following: from 2015 to 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prevented the Disengagement repeal law from moving forward. Why? Then justice minister Ayelet Shaked, who had pushed for the bill, said in an interview before the April 2019 elections – the first in the dizzying five-election cycle that seemingly ended last November – that political consideration motivated Netanyahu’s blocking the legislation. Those political considerations certainly included a concern about how this would play in Washington.

Tellingly, Netanyahu was not present during the Knesset vote Tuesday morning and was not one of the 31 hands raised in favor of the legislation, with his absence being interpreted by some as less than unqualified support for the measure.

One of the principal backers of the move, Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Son Har-Melech, is a former resident of Homesh, whose first husband was killed in a terrorist attack and who lost her home there when her settlement was uprooted. In an Arutz 7 interview, she said that she had hoped Netanyahu would have been present in the plenum and voted for the measure, because by doing so, he would have been making an important statement.

According to various media reports, Har-Melech and Religious Zionism Party MK Orit Struck threatened not to vote this week on matters concerning the judicial reform if this law was not brought for a vote, further illustrating how the judicial reform plan is influencing everything. While Netanyahu had been wary of moving this legislation forward in the past, now – if he wants to move the judicial reform through – he had no choice but to go along with it.

THE JUDICIAL reform debate has also obscured something else: that this government is a hard-right-wing government intent on pursuing a hard-right-wing agenda beyond judicial reform. That point, according to Oren, was likely one of two main points made by Herzog in his conversation with Sherman.

According to Oren, Herzog surely said Israel is a democracy, and this law resulted from a democratic process. The administration, after all, has urged Israel in recent weeks not to weaken its democratic institutions. Oren also said that Herzog most likely reminded Sherman that just as the Biden administration has political interests and a constituent base that it has to please, so does the Israeli government.

The second thing that Herzog needed to point out, Oren said, is that just because the law was passed did not mean that Israel was going to go ahead and immediately rebuild the settlements there. Netanyahu already clarified this in a statement he put out on his own.

This legislation, however, is not an isolated event or the sole irritant in the relationship between the Biden administration and the Netanyahu government.

There is, of course, the judicial reform, which both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Biden himself have addressed. There are the statements by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich about “erasing” Huwara and his speech in Paris denying the existence of a Palestinian people, comments roundly condemned by US officials. There is also the map that incorporates the Palestinian territories and Jordan within Greater Israel that was a prop at Smotrich’s Paris speech. And there is also the proposed law introduced last week by United Torah Judaism MKs that would stiffen Israel’s anti-missionary laws, a move that has enraged some Evangelicals.

All of this has an accumulated negative effect that Oren predicted Israel will come to feel.

“First of all the administration is facing the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that is already angry at Biden for not honoring his campaign commitment to open a consulate in east Jerusalem, [for] not condemning settlement building, and [for] not reanimating the peace process,” he said. “The progressive wing is angry, and it is a powerful wing.”

Furthermore, Oren said, all this is coming together at a most inopportune moment: “Precisely at the time when we might need the United States because we are facing the possibility of escalating violence in Judea and Samaria, and as we have the Iranians not walking, but now rather racing, toward nuclear threshold capacity.”

While it is self-evident why Israel may need US military and diplomatic aid as Iran moves closer to nuclear capabilities, Oren said Jerusalem will also need Washington if there is widespread violence in Judea and Samaria.

“If we have to send in the army because of violence, there will be collateral damage, and we might need the US to veto a UN resolution,” he said.

It is not only the American administration Israel may need, however. It may also need the US Evangelical community, now upset about the proposed missionary bill. It may need the US Jewish community, a large part of which is concerned about the judicial overhaul. It may need European allies, as well as Jordan, Egypt and the UAE – all perturbed both by Smotrich’s comments and the repeal of the Disengagement Law.

“We are not keeping our eye on the ball”,” Oren said, referring to Palestine violence and Iran’s nuclear march. “And the ball is getting bigger, closer and more explosive.”

But – as the saga over the repeal of the Disengagement Law made clear this week – who can pay attention to that ball at a time when the judicial reform dispute is simply overshadowing everything else?