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Joe Biden and Israel's judicial crisis: A test of US loyalty

Ines Pohl in Washington
August 2, 2023

Israel is becoming an election issue in the United States. Democrats are increasingly critical, while Republicans are pledging their "absolute support."

Joe Biden and Isaac Herzog in the Oval Office
Joe Biden met Israeli President Isaac Herzog in July — a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu is due later in the yearImage: Shawn Thew/CNP/Cover-Images/IMAGO

In terms of foreign policy, until now, the administration of US President Joe Biden has been focused primarily on Ukraine and China. However, now that Israelhas passed part of its controversial judicial reform bill, amid massive and ongoing protest, Biden will have to turn his attention more toward the Middle East — even if this can only lose him support at home.

Israel and the United States have a long history of close political and financial ties. The US supports Israel with the equivalent of almost $3.5 billion annually, a considerable portion of which is spent on defense against missiles, and on military technology.

Since the end of World War II, Israel has been the biggest recipient of accumulated US military aid, which currently totals around $158 billion. Now, with Israel's judicial reform, cracks are appearing in that cooperation.

Israeli Knesset passes judiciary changes

Criticism among friends

"Unfortunate" was how Biden described the passage of the measure by the Knesset on July 24. His words were unusual and unprecedented: The US president usually likes to make a point of referencing his close ties with Israel.

A few days earlier, in an interview with the American news channel CNN, Biden had expressed his concern about the political situation in Israel, and commented that the current government there had some of the "most extreme members" he had ever seen. This, he said, was "part of the problem — particularly those individuals in the Cabinet who say […] they [the Palestinians] have no right to be here." 

Biden's remarks are unusual in that, contrary to all diplomatic convention, we are seeing a sitting president repeatedly speak out about a domestic political controversy in a friendly nation. The reason for this is the amount of pressure he is under.

Lloyd Austin shaking hands with Yoav Gallant
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant in MarchImage: Ariel Hermoni/AA/picture alliance

Protests from the diaspora

A dam has burst within the global Jewish community. After the passage of the section of the judicial reform bill, the World Jewish Congress took out full-page adverts in US newspapers including the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Its message: "We, the Jews of the Diaspora, usually refrain from meddling in Israeli politics. […] We are always cautious to respect sovereignty. But today, Israel's future hangs in the balance. The Jewish people's one-and-only state is facing imminent existential danger."

Even just a short time ago, it would have been completely unthinkable for this international association of Jewish communities and organizations to be so publicly critical of Israel. 

Democrats: 'A dark day for democracy'

Now, though, the issue has also found its way onto the United States' domestic political agenda. After the partial passage of the judicial reform, Jerry Nadler, a Democrat member of the US House of Representatives, made a public declaration: "It's a dark day for Israeli democracy today." The 76-year-old, who was raised Jewish Orthodox, previously defended Israeli policy even in serious crises.

Furthermore, the progressive wing of the American Democratic party, which has long pushed for Washington to adopt a more critical stance against Israel on the Palestinian issue, is calling on the president to cut off US financial support in the wake of the recent judicial reform.

Republicans: 'Absolute support' for Israel

Meanwhile, opposition Republicans are seeking to exploit the difficult political situation for their own benefit. Former US vice president Mike Pence declared: "This preoccupation of the Democrats, which literally goes back decades, of trying to micromanage what's happening in the domestic politics in Israel is wrong-headed." In recent weeks, Pence has seized every opportunity to reaffirm his "absolute support" for Israel.

So what can the current president do in this difficult situation? According to Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the US think tank Council on Foreign Relations, Biden is caught in a strategic dilemma.

"The president doesn't want to pick a fight with the Israelis ahead of an election, especially since his opponents in the Republican Party have elevated Israel to their pantheon of causes that also includes abortion, gun, and less taxes," Cook says. He adds that it is unrealistic to anticipate that Biden might cut military assistance to Israel: "There is zero chance."

Brett Bruen, a political strategist who worked at the White House under President Barack Obama, takes a similar view: "While cutting off aid for Israel is unlikely, we will see more symbolic moves to more publicly show our concern," he believes.

A Likud campaign poster showing Donald Trump shaking Benjamin Netanyahu's hand in 2019
In 2019, Netanyahu's Likud party produced this campaign poster to show Netanyahu's friendly relations with Donald TrumpImage: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

Waiting for Donald Trump

Bruen is the president of Global Situation Room, a high-level US political crisis management association. These symbolic actions, he suggests, "could include delaying a visit by the prime minister to the White House, or limiting the trips by high-level American officials to Israel."

Bruen assumes that Netanyahu is counting on Donald Trump being reelected at the end of 2024. "The Trump administration created a four-year sugar high for Israel," comments Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Look what they did. They recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel." They also, as he points out, acknowledged Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

"You'd see the Republican right, the conservatives and the evangelical Christians and conservative Jews in the United States basically rally around Trump, because Trump won't ask any questions," says Miller. "He doesn't care what Netanyahu's government does, as long as he gets what he needs from Netanyahu, and he will — which is, basically, blind support."

This article has been translated from German.

Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl Bureau head of DW's Washington Studio@inespohl