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US lawmakers warn Biden that Israel's judicial overhaul undermines bilateral ties

More than 90 members of US Congress say Biden must 'oppose any moves toward annexation'
An Israeli police officer grabs a protester during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system Tel Aviv on 9 March 2023.
An Israeli police officer grabs a protester during a protest in Tel Aviv against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system, on 9 March 2023 (AP)

A group of nearly 100 Democratic lawmakers has warned US President Joe Biden that the actions of Israel's far-right government are undermining the US-Israel relationship.

The 92 lawmakers sent a letter to the US president on Thursday, in which they said the proposed changes to Israel's judiciary would "jeopardize Israeli democracy, which in turn would undermine the very foundation of the US-Israel relationship".

"We urge you to use all diplomatic tools available to prevent Israel's far-right government from further damaging the nation's democratic institutions and undermining the potential for two states for two peoples," said the letter, published by the liberal pro-Israel group J Street.

At present, Israel's highest court can disqualify government legislation if it contradicts Israel's 13 basic laws, particularly the Human Dignity and Liberty Basic Law. Israel's basic laws are intended to be part of the future constitution, which does not exist yet.

However, a plan proposed by the Benjamin Netanyahu-led coalition would expand the government's power to appoint judges and impede the Supreme Court's power to restrain parliament.

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Under a proposed law, a simple majority of 61 lawmakers could overturn a ruling by the Supreme Court on Israel’s basic laws.

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If the plan is fully implemented, Israel will likely cease to have an independent judiciary and change from a government that must justify its actions to a regime that can act arbitrarily, Israeli prosecutors and state attorneys have warned.

Last week, an Israeli parliament committee approved the restriction of the Supreme Court's power to override laws, a significant part of the overhaul. The bills will now go through three readings at the Knesset, or parliament, before a final vote.

The Democrat lawmakers, led by Jim McGovern, Rosa DeLauro, and Jan Schakowsky, said that stripping the judiciary's check on the government would "empower far-right lawmakers seeking to entrench settlement of the West Bank and advance a pro-annexation agenda... threatening Israel's existence as a Jewish and democratic state".

They called on Biden to "make clear that the US will firmly oppose any moves toward annexation that the Israeli government may pursue as a result" of the judicial changes.

Israel protests

Also on Thursday, 16 Jewish House Democrats sent a different letter to Netanyahu, expressing "profound concern" about the Israeli government's judicial overhaul.

In that letter, the lawmakers called on the Netanyahu government to suspend its efforts to pass the bills.

Meanwhile, demonstrations in Israel have been growing in opposition to the proposed changes to the country's judicial system. Tens of thousands of Israelis have been drawn to the streets to protest, blocking major roads in the city of Tel Aviv.

More than 66 percent of Israelis believe the Supreme Court should not have its powers curtailed, according to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute.

Netanyahu on Thursday had to be airlifted to the airport for an overseas trip to Rome after demonstrators blocked the road and prevented him from driving there.

Also, because of the protests, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin cut short a trip to Israel. He was due to meet his Israeli counterpart in Tel Aviv, but the meeting will instead take place at a venue near the airport.

Israeli police have responded to protesters using stun grenades, water cannons and mounted officers to disperse the crowds.

The demonstrations in Israel come amid heightened tensions in the occupied West Bank, which has seen a sharp uptick in the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces and settlers in recent months.

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