On Saturday night, I went to the rally in Jerusalem against the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul proposals. I was not there to protest since that is not my place as a non-Israeli citizen, but I wanted to get a sense of the tenor among the Israelis who were standing in the street outside the president’s residence in the cold. There were many things that were striking about the demonstration, from the wide age range of people to the presence of many kippah-wearing Israelis to the religion-infused language used by some of the speakers. But the theme that came through most clearly was the downplaying of politics and the centrality of democracy. There were no signs, banners, or paraphernalia of any political parties, none of the speakers referenced opposition politicians, and while there were chants about Yariv Levin and Amir Ohana—the justice minister and Knesset speaker, respectively—it was because their last names conveniently rhyme with Poland and Hungary in Hebrew, two countries that the rallygoers derided as places that Israel should not become. The loudest and most frequent chant was repeating the word “democracy” over and over, serving in lieu of applause when speakers would pause and punctuating each speaker’s departure from the stage when finished. The demonstration was purely about safeguarding Israeli democracy, no more and no less.

Israelis protesting the government’s judicial overhaul in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023

On Sunday evening, as Israel was recovering from the protests on Saturday night and gearing up for the even more significant protest in front of the Knesset on Monday, the Israeli cabinet unanimously voted to retroactively legalize nine illegal West Bank outposts, outposts that are illegal under Israeli law and a number of which were constructed on private Palestinian land. Israeli politics and society are roiling over the issue of Israeli democracy and whether the proposed judicial overhaul will fatally damage it, but the legalization of these outposts goes to the very heart of what democracy in Israel means. When Israelis and outside observers have spoken about threats to Israel’s democratic future, it has almost always been in reference to the Palestinian issue and how it will be resolved. The concept of a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict emanated from the idea that perhaps Israel could manage the conflict indefinitely, with the success of that tactic waxing and waning over time, but that if Israel were to remain a democracy, it would ultimately have to come to some sort of arrangement with the Palestinians. Israelis are in the streets in the name of saving their democracy, and the fact that they are demonstrating over the judiciary’s future as a meaningful check on the government and the Knesset does not negate that the original and enduring threat to Israeli democracy remains the situation with the Palestinians. In the midst of the justified alarm over a potential revolution in Israel’s system of government, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his coalition partners just took what might be the most revolutionary step an Israeli government has taken with regard to West Bank territory since 1967, and it should frighten those who care about the long-term sustainability of Israeli democracy as much as anything that is taking place in the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee.

Retroactive legalization of illegal outposts is not only a challenge to the viability of a future agreement with the Palestinians and Israel’s ability to maintain itself as both Jewish and democratic. It is not only yet another challenge to the Israeli Supreme Court, as the cabinet’s decision blatantly flouts Supreme Court rulings that settlements cannot be built on private Palestinian land. It is not only a challenge to the principle of Israeli security, with the Israeli government announcing it was legalizing nine outposts for each of the nine Israelis killed by Palestinian terrorists in attacks over the previous two weeks—as if this move will in any way deter nationalist Palestinian terrorism rather than make it more likely, and as absurd as it is to legalize West Bank outposts in response to terrorism emanating from Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. It is also a challenge to the United States, which is strongly opposed to legalizing illegal West Bank outposts and communicated that to the Netanyahu government multiple times through multiple channels.

Avigail in the South Hebron Hills, which is among the nine outposts set to be retroactively legalized by the Israeli government; by Daniel Ventura, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

In the wake of the announcement, the Biden administration has publicly responded and made its extreme displeasure apparent. Secretary of State Tony Blinken released a statement saying that the U.S. is “deeply troubled” by outpost legalization, and on Tuesday, Blinken released a joint statement with the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy stating that all five of them were “deeply troubled” by the move, which they “strongly oppose.” These statements are important and my intention is not to denigrate them. But they are not having the intended reaction inside of Israel, as evidenced by the unnamed “senior government official” who told the Times of Israel, “We have had differences of opinion on this issue for decades. These disagreements did not and will not harm the strong alliance between Israel and the U.S.” The Israeli government is blowing off the U.S. concern entirely, raising the question of what the purpose is of even stating those concerns if the issue will then be allowed to wither away. If the intent is to get the Israeli government to reverse course, something else is needed, and if not, then this is a waste of time. If the Biden administration is serious about being “deeply troubled” and believes that retroactively legalizing illegal outposts violates American interests and explicit American requests to the Israeli government not to do so, then statements of concern are not enough.

When Blinken went to Jerusalem, one of two things happened. He sent the message clearly to the Israeli government that this is something that the U.S. strongly opposes and Netanyahu ignored it, or he sent the message in a more oblique way and Netanyahu’s takeaway was that this is not something that the U.S. really cares about. Either way, the U.S. is now in the position of looking completely feckless, having been disregarded in a particularly humiliating manner by its closest regional ally right on the heels of Blinken’s visit—an outcome that was sadly predictable. If the Biden administration genuinely cares about the policy preferences it has voiced over the past few days, this cannot be the end of the story.

(From left to right) National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, and President Joe Biden on the phone with Prime Minister Netanyahu, January 27, 2023

There are a few ways to make sure that the Israeli government gets the message that the administration is trying to send, which will then leave it in the position of making a calculated decision about where its priorities lie. One is by quietly but temporarily putting a damper on the visa waiver process, something that Israel has long wanted and that the Biden administration has worked hard to accomplish but that now seems like a strange reward for a partner that is blatantly flouting American wishes and concerns. Entering the visa waiver program is an Israeli priority, and if reversing outpost legalization is an American priority, the administration should be more transactional about getting something before it gives something. 

Another is by temporarily suspending any discussions about a Netanyahu invite to Washington amidst constant and confident Israeli whispering that such an invite is in the offing. This is a move that the UAE took just last month following Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount, when it postponed and never rescheduled what was supposed to be Netanyahu’s first official visit to Abu Dhabi. Rewarding Netanyahu with a White House welcome, which will likely be accompanied by an address to Congress, will only reinforce a sense that American priorities need not be heeded.

Finally, there is the question of a U.N. resolution devoted to the legalization of outposts and letting Israel fully own the consequences of its policy choices. Security Council resolutions condemning Israel for settlements generally go too far and end up being a litany of Israeli sins with no acknowledgment of any Palestinian responsibility for its share of the conflict, while also denying Israel’s connection to the Old City of Jerusalem and Judaism’s holiest sites. If someone can come up with a resolution that is narrowly targeted to the legalization of illegal outposts and does not contain the usual pitfalls that trigger an American veto, and all the more so if it rightly condemns the spate of Palestinian terrorism that has claimed ten Israeli lives this year already, the Biden administration should think long and hard about not standing in its way. Protecting Israel from unfair targeting in international institutions is a strong U.S. interest, but shielding Israel from the full consequences of its actions when they contravene U.S. policy is not.

The Biden administration is either serious about what it wants from the Israeli government, or it is just engaging in messaging. If it is the latter, then nothing further is required. If it is the former, then it is time to figure out what the best actions are to back up its words with deeds.