AIPAC should speak up against Israel's judicial reform - opinion

As the main pro-Israel organization in the US, AIPAC should take a proactive stance and voice its concerns about judicial reform.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, in 2018. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, in 2018.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is on a mission to advance United States-Israel relations and promote support for Israel as one-of-its-kind liberal democracy in the Middle East. Unfortunately, Israeli democracy is now facing a major threat.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent judicial reform proposal threatens to undermine the separation of powers, weakening the Supreme Court’s ability to hold the government and parliament accountable and concentrating power in the hands of the coalition. This wide judicial overhaul threatens to turn Israel from a liberal democracy into an illiberal one, similar to present-day Hungary under the leadership of Viktor Orbán.

The reform has faced significant opposition, with around 150,000 people marching across Israel in weekly protests, the biggest demonstrations the country has seen in the last decade. The country’s most respected legal scholars, economists and business leaders have all raised alarm bells about the damaging effects on Israel’s separation of powers, minority rights, democratic status and economic stability.

Even those who have typically supported Netanyahu, such as Alan Dershowitz, have spoken out against the reform, warning that it endangers civil and minority rights in Israel and will make it harder to defend the country in the international arena.

Despite this opposition, one voice has been noticeably absent in the fight to preserve Israel’s separation of powers: that of pro-Israel and Jewish organizations in the United States. Some organizations have expressed their concerns behind closed doors but only a small handful have taken a public stance, such as The Rabbinical Assembly and UJA-NY. Concerned Israeli citizens are looking into these organizations and expect more of them to do so.

 LIKUD PARTY head Benjamin Netanyahu, Oct. 3. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90) LIKUD PARTY head Benjamin Netanyahu, Oct. 3. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

As the main pro-Israel organization in the US, AIPAC should take a proactive stance on this matter and voice its concerns. AIPAC’s current silence is understandable, as it is probably wary of taking a public position on inner-Israeli politics and risking legitimizing invalid criticism from anti-Israel groups in the US. However, it is precisely because of its role as a major pro-Israel organization that its voice is so important at this moment.

AIPAC has criticized Netanyahu before

IN 2019, AIPAC already set a precedent and publicly criticized Netanyahu for legitimizing Otzma Yehudit, the Kahane-supporting far-Right party in Israel. This time, Netanyahu went further: Otzma Yehudit are key members of his cabinet, and are playing an active part in promoting this judicial reform.

AIPAC should speak out against this reform above all because if it stands for Israel, it stands for Israeli democracy, which is at stake. But another aspect that it should consider is similar to the point Dershowitz made: as an organization defending Israel’s stance in the US, Israel’s separation of powers and strong judicial system are living proof of its true nature as a liberal democracy.

Defending Israel is already an uphill battle, given existing ill-informed criticism across the US in recent years. This reform will unfortunately make this battle harder than ever, with Israel’s system of checks and balances severely damaged.

Netanyahu has likely anticipated criticism from his political opponents and from academia, but what will make a difference is a unified front from pro-Israel and Jewish organizations, telling him that enough is enough. AIPAC’s voice, in particular, carries weight, as Netanyahu will listen to those who are usually his allies and who now acknowledge that he has gone too far.

AIPAC’s support for Israel means supporting the country’s democracy and Netanyahu’s judicial reform undermines this democracy at its core. It is within AIPAC’s mandate to help Israel stay true to its democratic foundations and this is the moment for the organization to step up and show its support.

In doing so, AIPAC will not only be serving Israel’s best interests but also its own, as it will show that the organization stands behind Israel’s liberal fundamental values, even when it means criticizing current policies when needed.

In 2012, Netanyahu himself said, “I believe that a strong and independent judicial system is what enables the existence of any other institution in a democracy... In any place that doesn’t have a strong and independent judicial system, rights cannot remain protected. In fact, the difference between countries that have rights only on paper and countries that keep rights in practice is a strong and independent judicial system.”

It is time for AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations to remind Netanyahu of these words and to stand with the people of Israel in their fight for democracy.

The writer is one of the first Rhodes Scholars to come from Israel and has been a Visiting Fellow for Public Policy at the University of Oxford. He served in the IDF’s Strategic Division as an Israel-US relations policy expert and was also an alumni board member of the Bronfman US-Israel Fellowship.