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Rising extremism and democratic crisis in Israel prompt rethinking of U.S. support

The Biden administration is facing growing calls to act over far-right rhetoric supporting violence against Palestinians and government plans to weaken the judiciary.
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For years, as Israeli politics marched steadily to the right, the growing backlash among its traditional supporters fueled concerns and warnings that the U.S. government may ultimately be forced to reconsider its role as Israel’s most important — and often most unflinching — ally.

Until now, they have remained just that: concerns and warnings. But, with Israel’s new government stocked with ultranationalists and stoking profound questions about the nation’s democratic future, there is a sense that this time may be different.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to weaken the Supreme Court has triggered nationwide protests and a growing constitutional crisis. An eruption of violence in the occupied West Bank — including near-daily Israeli raids, a rampage by Jewish settlers and attacks by Palestinian militants — has led the CIA director to warn that a third intifada could be imminent.

And the international community is aghast over the rise of some far-right figures, including one senior minister who recently called for Israel to “wipe out" a Palestinian village.

Israelis protest against the government's controversial judicial reform bill, in front of the residence of Justice Minister Yariv Levin, in Modiin
Protests against the government's judicial reforms have highlighted a deepening divide within Israel.Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP - Getty Images

For the Biden administration, which has echoed many of those concerns, the urgent question is whether they necessitate any change in policy toward a nation heavily reliant on assistance, military cooperation and international political support from Washington.

“The United States should back up our concerns with actions,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who was U.S. ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush. In an interview, he said the U.S. should consider curbing bilateral programs — but not security aid — and supporting U.N. Security Council resolutions criticizing Israel that the U.S. has historically blocked.

“Maybe it’s time to send that kind of signal,” he said.

Last week Kurtzer, now at Princeton, joined nearly 150 other current and former ambassadors, rabbis and Jewish organization leaders who signed a letter opposing a planned U.S. visit this week by Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has referred to himself as a “proud homophobe” and a “fascist.” Others have called on the Biden administration to deny Smotrich a visa.

The State Department has called Smotrich’s comments about erasing the Palestinian village of Hawara “disgusting and repugnant.” Although the U.S. hasn’t addressed his status, citing confidentiality, a spokesperson for Smotrich told Israeli media on Thursday that he had been granted a diplomatic visa to enter the country.

However, the Biden administration appears to be boycotting the visit; a National Security Council official told NBC News that no U.S. government officials planned to meet with him.

Already, the rise of the Israeli far-right has shifted the political dynamics in the U.S., with criticism of Israel that was once limited to the most left-leaning Democrats and human rights groups now increasingly common among moderate Democrats and mainstream American Jewish organizations.

In Congress this week, more than 90 Democratic lawmakers led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, sent President Joe Biden a letter urging him to use “all diplomatic tools available to prevent Israel’s current government from further damaging the nation’s democratic institutions and undermining the potential for two states for two peoples.”

And late last year, a group of more than 300 rabbis published an open letter declaring that members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition were not welcome to speak at their synagogues.

“It’s a different moment, in terms of the potential damage that would be done should the policies that key figures in this new coalition have called for be implemented,” Rabbi David Saperstein, former U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said in an interview. “Those changes would significantly damage the democratic character of Israel.”

Especially problematic for the Biden administration is the Israeli government’s retreat from even rhetorical support for a two-state solution and eventual Palestinian statehood, which for decades has allowed the U.S. to defend Israel and to overlook its occupation of the West Bank by regarding it as temporary and best resolved through negotiations.

In a stark example of how Israel’s multiple crises are already creating headaches for the U.S., Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this week was forced to cut his Israel trip short and relocate meetings as mass protests against the judicial reforms threatened to obstruct his safe passage into Tel Aviv.

When he did meet with his Israeli counterpart, at a site near the airport, Austin made a passing reference to the importance of an “independent judiciary” and “the need to de-escalate” West Bank violence, but made clear the U.S. government had no intention of reducing its commitment to Israel’s security.

“It will not change. It is not negotiable,” Austin said.

Protesters in Israel staged a "day of resistance" on Thursday, just as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was visiting. Ohad Zwigenberg / AP

So far, there are no indications the Biden administration intends any substantive shift in its relationship with Israel’s government, beyond more frequent public calls for de-escalation in the West Bank and gentle reminders about the importance of democratic institutions.

Even if the U.S. did opt for a change in policy, it’s unclear whether it could force Israel to change course.

A former senior Israeli government official said the emergence of a major threat to the country's democracy was a “big dilemma” for its closest ally. But the official said any U.S. efforts to condition elements of the relationship would likely be fruitless because Netanyahu, under the delicate coalition he formed with far-right parties to secure a return to power, is now beholden to them.

“It’s quite pointless at this moment,” the former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to criticize the current prime minister. “His own members of his coalition are escalating the situation. He’s not managing to control the members of the coalition.”

Any U.S. move to reduce or leverage support for Israel would undoubtedly trigger fierce blowback from nearly all Republicans and many Democrats, not to mention Orthodox Jewish and evangelical groups in the U.S. that have been more supportive of Netanyahu’s approach.

The U.S. could seek to impose conditions on the billions of dollars of annual assistance to Israel, most of it military. Yet conditioning aid to Israel has generally been considered a third rail in U.S. foreign policy, and even many lawmakers now speaking out against Israel’s rightward shift oppose that step.

U.S. support for — or at least refusal to block — resolutions calling out Israel on the world stage could be one option to signal a shift in policy, as Kurtzer suggested.

For Israel’s government, perhaps the most alarming shift so far in response to the proposed judicial reforms has been economic, potentially jeopardizing its status as a Mideast economic powerhouse that punches above its weight.

Last week former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a self-avowed Israel supporter, said some businesspeople were already pulling their money out of the country or reconsidering whether to invest.

“As the owner of a global company, I don’t blame them,” Bloomberg wrote in a New York Times op-ed under the headline “Israel Is Courting Disaster.”

Those concerns have already sent the shekel plummeting to the lowest level in years. U.S. financial services firm JPMorgan, in an internal research memo first disclosed by Israeli media and obtained by NBC News, warned the increased risk stemming from the judicial plan could negatively affect Israel’s credit rating.

Another potentially explosive flashpoint is looming over opposition to the judicial plan from elite members of Israel’s military, including more than three dozen reservist fighter pilots who’ve announce they’d boycott a planned training, voicing concern about serving a “dictatorial regime.”

Some reservists have raised concerns that, if Israel undermines its democratic institutions, troops could be vulnerable to war crimes or other allegations in global venues like the International Criminal Court. The fact that Israel has an independent court system to appropriately handle such allegations has been a key Israeli defense in the past.

Dan Shapiro, U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Obama administration and now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, said there could be further challenges for U.S. security cooperation if the situation devolves into a full-blown constitutional crisis, with Israel’s parliament and Supreme Court both claiming to have overruled the other.

“If that happens, those in uniform will have to decide whose order to follow. They may not all decide the same way,” Shapiro said. “In that scenario, U.S. officers may not know who to coordinate with.”

Any dramatic shift from the U.S. remains unlikely under Biden, said the former senior Israeli official, pointing to the 80-year-old president’s close friendship with Israel forged over decades as U.S. senator and then vice president. But younger Democratic lawmakers have been much quicker to say U.S. cooperation with Israel isn’t guaranteed.

“Few of these kinds of friends of Israel exists anymore,” the former official said. “The biggest cause of concern should be the next generation of leaders.”