(JTA) — President Joe Biden has weighed in against the Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms, saying that an independent judiciary is part of “the genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy.”
Biden made the comments in a 46-word statement Saturday to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a longtime chronicler of the U.S.-Israel relationship. “This is the first time I can recall a U.S. president has ever weighed in on an internal Israeli debate about the very character of the country’s democracy,” Friedman wrote in his column.
Until now, Biden had not commented on the judiciary proposals, even as a growing number of prominent and often typically nonpartisan voices within Israel, American Judaism, academia and business have decried them.
In the new comments, Biden said — without naming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — that it was important for Israeli leaders to build support for the changes they seek.
“The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary,” Biden said in the statement. “Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”
Biden’s comments come as Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, prepares to consider the proposed reforms for the first time this week. Israelis from all over the country plan to call out of work and school to protest outside the Knesset building in Jerusalem on Monday.
Under the terms of the proposed reforms, the Knesset would get the right to overrule decisions of Israel’s Supreme Court. Lawmakers would also get more power over appointing judges. Netanyahu and his allies in the right-wing governing coalition vowed during their campaigns to pursue the changes, arguing that the court is too liberal and does not reflect the attitudes of the people. Changes to the judiciary would also have the effect of insulating Netanyahu from the corruption trial he currently faces.
About a third of Israelis support the proposals and about 40% oppose them, according to recent polling by the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute. But previous polling by the organization has found that a majority of Israelis say they support some aspects or goals of the reforms, and the latest poll found that two-thirds of Israelis say they would prefer negotiations leading to a compromise.
Israelis who oppose the reforms have been protesting against them and other aspects of the government’s agenda, particularly the ambition of some of its ministers to limit LGBTQ, Arab and non-Orthodox rights. Saturday night’s protests were the largest yet, with a growing contingent in the Orthodox city of Beit Shemesh as well as a first-time rally in Petah Tikva along with the main demonstration in Tel Aviv and smaller ones in other cities. Israelis living abroad are also holding satellite rallies in cities around the world.
The proposals have alarmed foreign investors and credit agencies, which see countries that move away from democratic norms as risky investments. Israeli companies have already moved $780 million from Israeli banks to banks abroad amid the concern, according to a new report from the Israeli business news site Calcalist, which reported that many of the companies making the changes are not active in the anti-government protests.