When US Ambassador Tom Nides urged the new Israeli government to pump the brakes on its plans to drastically reshape the nation’s judicial system, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly pushed the pedal to the metal to move full speed in his U-turn away from democracy.
Nides was echoing the words of President Joe Biden but more importantly, those of hundreds of thousands of Israelis, from President Isaac Herzog to ordinary Israelis from all walks of life who have been protesting for weeks about the drastic changes that will rob Israel’s highly respected judiciary of its independence.
Their concerns are echoed by most mainstream American Jewish organizations, which are usually too timid to express, even privately, any criticism of Israeli policies. Even the staid establishment Jewish Federations of North America publicly expressed opposition, joining leading American Jewish political, business and community leaders. It’s not just liberal Jews but Conservative and Modern Orthodox in the Diaspora, as well.
The Israeli minister responsible for dealing with the Diaspora, Amichai Chikli, responded with a message for all of them in the Diaspora: “Mind your own business.” For those unfamiliar with his colloquial message to American critics, let me translate: Shut up and send more money.
How Israelis take criticism of their government while overseas
It’s a common reaction among Israeli leaders encountering criticism from abroad. Just keep the billions in foreign aid, hi-tech weapons, UN vetoes and foreign threats flowing, but keep your opinions to yourself. If there is resentment about being on the American dole, there’s a simple solution: go from MYOB to DIY.
This is 2023, not 1953. Israel is no longer poor and vulnerable. Its army is one of the best and most respected in the world. It is a nuclear power capable of defeating any combination of enemies. It is the start-up nation that exports its military and civilian technology around the world.
The greatest threat facing the nation today is the self-inflicted damage to its democracy. Under the most extreme religious-nationalist government in its 75-year history, it faces a brain drain and capital flight as investors and talent go elsewhere.
Chikli voiced a resentment apparently shared by his coalition colleagues. They seem to take the calls to slow down and seek consensus on judicial reform as an excuse to accelerate their efforts to undo Israeli democracy, which is what they are doing.
Nides wasn’t trying to stop or dictate the terms of any judicial overhaul, just saying to slow down and listen to other views. The ambassador pointed out that half of all Israelis oppose the government’s plan and “not just liberal Jews like me but Modern [Orthodox] and Conservative [Jews] are quite worried.”
Justice Minister Yariv Levin snapped back, “We’re proceeding to advance the reform without stopping for even a minute, nor are we prepared to suspend it for even a second.”
There was a loud ring of hypocrisy in Netanyahu’s admonishment to critics. “All democracies should respect the will of other free peoples, just like we respect their democratic decisions,” said the notorious meddler in American partisan politics. It is difficult to swallow his promise that “Israel is and will remain a strong and vibrant democracy” when one takes a close look at the autocratic path he and his extremist coalition partners are taking.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, echoing Netanyahu’s hypocrisy, said the US should not interfere because “we always made sure not to interfere in the US’s internal affairs.” Chikli, who Jewish Insider called a far-right firebrand instigator, said the judicial reform is an inner political debate.
His MYOB message might make a bit more sense if followed by “and keep your damned money, all $3.8 billion.” Instead, the message for years to American governments and American Jews has been “shut up and send more money so we can build more settlements and do as we please, give us your latest weapons and technology and don’t forget to veto all those UN resolutions that dare to criticize us.”
Does Israel really need US taxpayers to keep giving upward of $4 billion (NIS 14.5 b.) a year, especially at a time when there is a movement in Congress to make deep cuts in federal spending and possibly slashing critical social welfare programs?
Israel is considered a high-income country by the World Bank. Wikipedia reports its standard of living is “significantly higher than all of the other countries in the region and equal to Western European countries and... other highly developed countries.” International Living Magazine ranked it 32nd out of 194 countries in its 2020 annual standard of living index.
Its GDP per capita in 2020, according to Forbes, put it in the top 20 global economies, higher than Canada, New Zealand, the UK, France and Japan.
In other words, Israel is not a poor, weak and threatened country. Quite the opposite. If its government decides to turn from democracy to autocracy and start by ending its independent judiciary, that’s its business.
But don’t look to us to accept it silently and continue with business as usual, providing the traditional abundant economic, military, diplomatic and moral support as its government speeds down a dangerous road.
Friends should not let friends drive off a cliff.
The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant and lobbyist, and the former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.