If Bibi’s Attacks on Democracy Continue, Biden Should Consider Withholding Aid to Israel

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Reuters
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Reuters
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When you get on a plane and the pilot has a kamikaze headband tied around his head, get off the plane. This is one of two important political lessons offered by developments in Israel and the U.S. this past weekend.

The other is that just because a corrupt demagogue is willing to use mob violence to advance his agenda, that doesn’t mean all public demonstrations are bad. In fact, when fundamental rights are at stake in a democracy—and other institutions of society have been co-opted by craven politicians—peacefully taking to the streets is sometimes the only way to stop kamikaze politicians.

This Is Israel’s Most Dire Week Since the Yom Kippur War

Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump have made it clear they will use any available tool to protect themselves from prosecution and (even if it means bringing down their country’s democratic institutions) the rule of law and the country’s global standing. They have, for years, displayed their willingness to embrace kamikaze tactics for all to see, as both have sought to obstruct justice and attack prosecutors, judges, and laws simply because they threatened them personally.

Unfortunately for both Israel and for the United States, that has not stopped their political allies from supporting them. Bibi was reelected prime minister even while he was under indictment for corruption. Trump surely anticipates trying to do the same thing. And both have made it crystal clear that they have sought high office as a means of staying out of jail.

It has been a chilling spectacle for both countries. But perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. Because at least for the moment, the people of Israel’s active use of their rights to free expression and peaceful public assembly has forestalled Netanyahu’s attempt to eviscerate Israeli democracy by subverting the independence of its judiciary.

Following massive demonstrations, on Monday, Netanyahu announced he would postpone until after the Israeli parliament’s month-long spring recess the controversial judicial “reforms” that have led to thirteen straight weeks of protests in Israel. Those protests came to a head this weekend, as objections to the reforms led Netanyahu to fire his defense minister and sent hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets, culminating in a general strike on Monday.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, amid demonstrations after he dismissed the defense minister as his nationalist coalition government presses on with its judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Ronen Zvulun/Reuters</div>

The threat Netanyahu and his coalition pose still looms (and of course, temporarily dodging this political bullet does nothing to help the millions of Palestinians who have been disenfranchised and denied their fundamental rights by Israel.) For that reason, Israelis with whom I spoke said it was likely the protests would continue.

“‘Freezing’ the process solves nothing,” said former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas.

That’s because the issue remains open and imminent. In a dangerous region of the world, by far the greatest threat Israel faces is from its current prime minister and the cluster of right-wing thugs that make up his ruling coalition.

That’s why it’s extremely important that the pressure on Netanyahu remains intense.

Here’s How the U.S. Is Preparing to Handle Multiple Foreign Policy Crises At Once

The Biden administration faces a pivotal challenge. Privately, administration officials have expressed disgust with some of the statements coming from Bibi’s more radical cabinet officials, and are deeply opposed to the proposed judicial reforms. But publicly they have moderated their criticism, offering comparatively muted formulations about the importance of maintaining democracy in Israel or seeking “compromises.”

While the “freeze” may appear just such a compromise, listening to Netanyahu’s speech—it was clear it was not. He used harsh language to condemn pro-democracy demonstrators as “a minority of extremists willing to tear our country to shreds.” Members of his coalition called for violent counter-demonstrations.

Further, in exchange for agreeing to the pause in implementing the judicial reforms, Netanyahu reportedly made disturbing promises to some of his most extreme supporters—like offering National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir the ability to form his own “national guard” within his ministry. This is an extremely bad idea, given Ben-Gvir’s past history which includes a conviction as a supporter of a right-wing terrorist group.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Israelis protest near Israel's Supreme Court during a demonstration after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the defense minister in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Ilan Rosenberg/Reuters</div>

Israelis protest near Israel's Supreme Court during a demonstration after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the defense minister in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023.

Ilan Rosenberg/Reuters

For all these reasons, the Biden administration needs to send a clear message privately to Netanyahu that any further moves to curtail democracy will lead to an immediate pause of a meaningful portion of U.S. aid to Israel. We have the leverage. We should use it.

Moreover, as Israel’s most steadfast ally, we have an obligation to defend it. Standing in the way of tyranny from within is one way in which the U.S. can live up to its commitment to defend Israel.

Absent a solid promise not to pause but to actually fully stop the “judicial reform” effort, the administration should also rethink the invitation Israel has to participate in the upcoming Democracy Summit. (The administration says the criteria for attending the event must remain flexible to countries with differing degrees or systems of democracy. Fair enough. But undercutting that position is the fact that invitations to democracy backsliders like Turkey and Hungary were, appropriately, withheld.)

Israel’s Unrest Could End Up Making Its Democracy Stronger

The Biden administration must recognize that what’s happening in Israel could easily happen here. Our once and possibly future president continues to call for violence against prosecutors investigating him, invokes racist slurs against them and their backers, and continues to venerate the Jan. 6 insurrectionists as political martyrs. Should Trump succeed or Netanyahu do so with the apparent acceptance of the US government, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyit Erdogan, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and India’s Narendra Modi will surmise that their moves against democracy will be more easily tolerated.

Democracy cannot and must not tolerate kamikaze politicians like Netanyahu, Trump and the others. The threat is too grave and given that they have been so clear about their intentions, we have no excuses for allowing matters to deteriorate even further than they already have.

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