In a rare move, the US State Department on Tuesday called Israeli envoy Mike Herzog in to voice its displeasure at the Knesset vote the night before repealing the 2005 Disengagement Law in northern Samaria.
According to a brief readout of that meeting, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman conveyed Washington’s “concern” over the move, “including the prohibition on establishing settlements in the northern West Bank. They also discussed the importance of all parties refraining from actions or rhetoric that could further inflame tensions leading into the Ramadan, Passover and Easter holidays.”
There was no word regarding how Herzog responded, and neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Prime Minister’s Office statement. What Herzog could have reminded Sherman, but probably did not, is that this was a decision made by the democratically elected government of Israel and passed democratically by its parliament.
Why stress that point? Because the Americans over the last several weeks have expressed concern about the judicial overhaul proposal and the democratic direction of the country. Herzog could have said: “You want democracy? Well, this is democracy.”
An unwise democratic decision
Yet, not every decision made democratically is wise, nor the timing particularly opportune. And this is one of those cases.
Not for nothing did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu block this type of bill from passing the Knesset in the past.
In March 2019, before the first of a cycle of five elections, then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked said that Netanyahu had blocked the cancellation of the Disengagement Law for political reasons, and that her New Right Party would work for the law’s repeal in the next coalition. The prime minister reportedly kept the bill from progressing on numerous occasions from 2015–2019 because he understood its sensitivity, including the impact in could have on his relations with Washington.
It’s a shame that Netanyahu, circa 2023, did not listen to Netanyahu, circa 2015-2019.
Had he done so, it could have spared Israel a reprimand from the US State Department which characterized the law as “provocative and counterproductive,” saying that it contradicted prior commitments given to America 20 years ago by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, and just a few days ago by the current government.
While Israel can withstand US disapproval of one policy or another, when the disagreements come in quick succession there is a concern about accumulative impact.
The Knesset Disengagement Law comes hot on the heels of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s utterance that there is “no such thing as a Palestinian people.” And that followed his comment that Huwara should be erased. Both remarks were condemned by the US.
This is in addition to America’s stated concern about the judicial reform bill. President Joe Biden, who has pointedly not yet invited Netanyahu to the White House for a meeting, spoke with the prime minister by phone this week and, according to a US readout of that conversation, “underscore[d] his belief that democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship, that democratic societies are strengthened by genuine checks and balances, and that fundamental changes should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support.”
The aggregate of all this is negative, and is coming at a time when Iran continues moving closer to the nuclear finish line and Israel will need US assistance – diplomatic or otherwise – to prevent it from crossing that line and gaining nuclear capabilities. It is also coming as some in the Democratic Party, and not only the usual suspects of far-Left progressives, are speaking of the need to curtail aid to Israel.
For instance, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy said on Sunday that Washington should condition its aid to Israel. “I think the United States needs to draw a harder line with this government,” he said in a CNN interview. “If we’re going to continue to be in the business of supporting the Israeli government, they have to be in the continued business of a future Palestinian state.”
“If we’re going to continue to be in the business of supporting the Israeli government, they have to be in the continued business of a future Palestinian state.”Chris Murphy
Even if the prime minister disagrees with these sentiments, the Netanyahu of past governments would have been attuned to them and adjusted policy accordingly. The current Netanyahu, however, is not similarly attuned, and the result – as the summons of Herzog to the State Department attests – is bad for Israel-US ties.