For the past several months, the focus of most Israel watchers has been concentrated on the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul proposals. Jurists, academics, politicians, diplomats and commentators joined more than 100,000 Israeli demonstrators in expressing concern about the government’s plan to change the selection process for justices on Israel’s Supreme Court and to empower a bare majority of the Knesset’s 120 members to override almost any Supreme Court ruling regarding the validity of a Knesset law.
The watchword was “democracy.” It was chanted by protesters. It was cited by those commenting on the plan. And while we subscribe to the guiding words of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who pledged to judge the new Israeli government by what it does rather than by what some of its new members say, we remain troubled by the government’s steady move to enact the judicial reform plan as law.
And then, almost out of nowhere, early last week the Israeli cabinet did something that has the potential to be even more problematic for the Jewish state than the vaunted judicial reform plan. The cabinet unanimously voted to retroactively legalize nine West Bank settlements that, up to that point, were illegal under Israeli law. The vote also approved the planned building of close to 10,000 housing units in existing settlements in the West Bank, including on land owned by Palestinians.
This was the single biggest settlement announcement ever made. And it was endorsed by Israel’s cabinet despite what were reported to be very clear and very direct objections from senior personnel in the Biden administration in private consultations before last week’s vote.
Much of the international community considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal under international law. And Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that settlements cannot be built on private Palestinian land. The retroactive legalization of illegal settlements and approval of plans for further construction on Palestinian land is precisely the kind of “let’s see what they do” development that Blinken promised would be addressed. But the public U.S. reaction has been mild. Rather than condemn the decision, Blinken and the White House joined four European countries to say they are “deeply troubled” and “concerned” about the Israeli decision, which they “strongly oppose.” Those diplomatic expressions were virtually ignored by most of Israel’s leadership.
There is mounting pressure for the Biden administration to do something substantive to drive home its profound disappointment. Some have suggested taking steps that reflect a mild rebuke, like canceling a planned meeting or slow-walking the process for Israeli participation in a U.S. government program. But until earlier this week, the real focus was on how President Joe Biden would instruct his U.N. ambassador to vote when the Security Council considered a Palestinian-led resolution against Israeli policy in the West Bank. On Monday — the day that vote was supposed to happen — the resolution was tabled, following what was reported to be intense lobbying by the U.S. with both the Palestinian Authority and Israel over a less confrontational approach to deal with the cabinet’s settlement vote.
For now, there is calm. But we wait to see whether there will be any consequence to the Israeli cabinet’s unanimous message of dismissal, disregard and disrespect to its United States partner.