Following the meeting in New York between President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently, the White House issued a summary of the two leaders’ discussion.
According to the statement, the meeting was focused on the following issues, in this order: Making sure Iran never acquires nuclear capability; promoting peace and economic development between Israel and other countries in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, obviously); improving the security and economic situation in the West Bank; and keeping the two-state solution alive. Only at the bottom of the list, the White House mentions that “(t)he President also reiterated his concern about any fundamental changes to Israel’s democratic system, absent the broadest possible consensus.”
However, watching on TV the open meeting between the two leaders, aimed at giving the press a heads-up toward what would be discussed later behind closed doors, I noticed that Biden had actually turned this list of priorities upside down. Reading from his carefully prepared notes, the president opened the meeting by saying: “We’re going to discuss some of the hard issues, that is upholding democratic values that lie at the heart of our partnership, including the checks and balances in our systems.”
Upholding democracy in Israel, then, was the most pressing issue on Biden’s agenda. Sure, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinians — these are all critical issues. However, if democratic values, “that lie at the heart of our partnership” are shattered in Israel, then, reading between the president’s lines, all the rest becomes less important.
Indeed, Biden reiterated the old truism that, for decades, U.S.-Israel relations have been based more on shared democratic values than on interests. Yet in January, Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin launched the judicial reform, which is actually a constitutional coup, aimed at weakening the Supreme Court, freeing the government from any constraint. This is exactly what happened in Poland and Hungary, countries that had gradually lost their democratic nature.
Unlike what happened in these countries, though, hundreds of thousands of Israelis vowed not to let it happen in their country. Every week, they have been protesting in mass rallies and, recently, Israeli expats and American Jews joined them, bringing the Israeli protest to the American scene. Surely, Biden, when he arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel in New York, couldn’t have missed such a demonstration of the people who care for Israel’s democracy.
The Biden administration, then, is concerned about Israel’s democracy. But what do Americans think, or know, about this issue? In April, the Brookings Institute ran a survey asking Americans how they would describe the Israeli democracy. The results were terrible. While Israelis (myself included), like to boast about their democracy being “vibrant,” only 9% (!) of Americans agree with that definition; 13% think Israel is “a flawed democracy;” and another 7% believe it is “a state with restricted minority rights.”
Worse, still, is the sickening fact that 13% of Americans consider Israel to be “a state with segregation similar to apartheid.” And finally, 56% don’t know anything about it.
Needless to say, in that survey, Democrats had more negative perceptions of Israeli democracy than Republicans, but not by a significant margin. Bad news to Netanyahu, who always prefers a Republican in the White House.
There is, however, good news, as well. Israelis have risen against the attack on their democracy and they are determined not to let it fall. Furthermore, the rallies of American Jews and Israeli expats in solidarity with the protests in Israel undoubtedly will hammer home the message with the American public that Israel is a vibrant democracy, fighting for its life.
Uri Dromi was the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments, 1992-1996.