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Israeli Judicial Reforms Advance Over Vocal Opposition
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Israeli Judicial Reforms Advance Over Vocal Opposition

Plus: Should we be concerned about China buying up American farmland?

Happy Thursday! Rumor has it a bassist named Paul McCartney and a drummer named Ringo Starr have been collaborating with a guitarist named Keith Richards and a singer named Mick Jagger, recording in Los Angeles in recent weeks. We wish them luck—it’s hard for newbies to break into the music industry at such an advanced age.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Inspectors from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) are visiting Iran after a Bloomberg report revealed that the agency had detected uranium enriched to 84 percent—near weapons-grade levels. “One thing is true,” Rafael Grossi, the director general of IAEA, said last month. “[Iran has] amassed enough nuclear material for several nuclear weapons, not one at this point.”
  • At least 11 Palestinians were killed and more than 100 wounded in a gun battle following an Israeli military raid Wednesday in the West Bank city of Nablus. A statement from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said security forces were seeking to arrest three Palestinian terrorists responsible for previous attacks and planning more “in the immediate future.” Palestinian terror groups claimed six of the 11 killed—including the three originally targeted for arrest—and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad promised retaliation. The IDF is anticipating a response to the raid.
  • Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and other top Taiwanese officials met with senior U.S. officials including Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Taiwanese media reported—the first Washington visit by top Taiwanese officials since the U.S. recognized China’s current government 44 years ago.
  • The Biden administration released a proposed rule this week that would bar most migrants arriving at the southern border from receiving asylum in the U.S. unless they demonstrate they were denied refuge in a nation they passed through on their way. The policy—which mirrors a Trump-era proposal blocked in court—is scheduled to take effect May 11, when the Title 42 policy blocking most asylum applications is set to expire.
  • The Department of Justice charged eight people Wednesday with blocking access to an abortion clinic in Michigan in August 2020. The indictment, which cites livestream footage of the incident, alleges the individuals “engaged in a conspiracy” to prevent people from accessing the clinic in violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. The charges come after an anti-abortion protester was acquitted last month of charges of FACE Act violations related to a demonstration at a Philadelphia clinic in 2021.
  • Special Counsel Jack Smith has subpoenaed Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner as part of an investigation into former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, the New York Times first reported. It’s unclear whether the former president will try to block their testimony by invoking executive privilege, as he has with previous witnesses. Former Vice President Mike Pence and former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows have also been subpoenaed, but Pence has vowed to resist testifying on the grounds of legislative privilege.
  • Montana Sen. Jon Tester announced on Wednesday he will seek reelection for a fourth term, boosting Democrats’ chances of holding the Senate in 2024. No Republican challengers have announced yet, but Montana Republican Reps. Matt Rosendale and Ryan Zinke are reportedly both considering bids.

Israeli Judicial Reforms Move Forward

Protesters hold Israeli flags in front of the Knesset. (Photo by Saeed Qaq/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

When the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, suggested on a podcast last week that Israel’s government should “pump the brakes” on judicial reforms now moving through the Israeli parliament, Amichai Chikli—a top official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government—had a curt response: “Mind your own business.”

Lawmakers kept their foot on the gas this week, forging ahead with changes limiting the powers of a judicial branch they view as bloated and obstructionist by overhauling the Supreme Court’s appointment process and limiting its oversight of laws passed by the Knesset, or parliament. Despite thousands of protesters gathering in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for weeks on end—as many as 100,000 people congregated outside the parliamentary building at one point—members of the Knesset voted in recent days to advance portions of the plan.

As Harvest detailed in a recent explainer for the site, the reform package encompasses a number of individual proposals. The first, an “override proof clause,” would allow the Knesset to supersede any judicial nullification by simply re-passing the law in question with a majority vote, and a version advanced on Wednesday goes even further, permitting certain pieces of legislation to be preemptively exempted from judicial review altogether. Another element of the package—yet to be introduced—would ax the judicial standard that allows the Supreme Court to use “reasonability” as a justification to block legislation, government appointments, or other administrative actions. The third proposal would rework the judicial appointment process, replacing two representatives of the Israel Bar Association on the Judicial Selection Committee with two people chosen by the justice minister, effectively giving the governing majority control over the selection process for the 15-justice Supreme Court. 

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the Knesset voted 63-47 to pass the first bill in the series of proposed reforms—the one dealing with judicial review and the judicial appointment process—in the first of three readings before parliament. The legislation will now return to committee—where it could theoretically be altered following additional debate—before returning to the full parliament for two back-to-back additional readings.

Founded in 1948, Israel has no written constitution, relying instead on a set of semi-constitutional “Basic Laws” governing various fundamental issues. The degree to which the Supreme Court has considered these laws superior to other Knesset legislation has varied, but a precedent-setting decision in 1995 kicked off what’s now known as the “Constitutional Revolution,” giving the Court the functional—if not codified—power of judicial review. Since then, the Supreme Court has overruled 22 laws passed by parliament for violating Basic Laws. When the prime minister has a strong Knesset majority behind him or her, the judges on the Supreme Court—who can only be removed from their lifetime appointments by the committee that appoints them—serve as the only real check on the executive and legislative branches.

After being exiled to the minority for a little over a year, Netanyahu returned to his post as prime minister in December after the fifth election in four years allowed him to cobble together a majority coalition considered the most right-wing in Israeli history.* Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, and has generally been a defender of the Supreme Court and its role in buttressing Israeli democracy. But Netanyahu is also being tried for graft—charges he denies—in three cases being heard together. Critics argue he may be pushing the reforms to protect himself from prosecution. One member of Netanyahu’s cabinet, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, said during a speech in October—before the elections—that he would support a so-called “French law” which would make prime ministers immune from prosecution (as presidents are in France). Ben-Gvir said he would make it “retroactive,” which would cover Netanyahu’s alleged crimes. Limiting judicial review could make those plans a reality. 

But Netanyahu’s precarious political situation likely played far more of a role in his public support of the changes than any personal beliefs about the role of the judiciary. The prime minister’s narrow majority in the Knesset renders him more or less hostage to his very ideological coalition, made up of his own Likud party and several other Orthodox and far-right parties. Several of those parties made judicial reform a significant part of their platform ahead of the latest election, and if Netanyahu moderates, the coalition that took him weeks to negotiate could be at risk. 

After the first provision was passed on Tuesday, Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich—who is serving as finance minister in Netanyahu’s government—tweeted “what you vote for is what you get!”

Proponents of the reforms argue the changes ensure unelected judges—who they believe have overstepped their authority—have a democratic check on their power. “​​Judges are also fallible human beings no less free from personal or ideological biases and prejudices than legislators,” Moshe Koppel—head of the Kohelet Policy Forum, a Zionist think tank that’s been advising lawmakers on the reforms—wrote in an op-ed for the Times of Israel. Many of the changes—including giving the elected government the power to choose judges—only bring Israel, where the powers of the court have ballooned in the last three decades, in line with other democracies, Koppel argued.

But opponents of the reforms argue Israel’s unique characteristics—the lack of a written constitution codifying individual rights, the inherent tension between religious and secular forces in the “Jewish democratic” state, the precarious status of ethnic minorities, the legal murkiness of the territories—necessitate a unique judicial system. “[The reforms are] deeply problematic if you want to protect minority rights against overbearing majorities,” George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin writes in Reason, arguing Netanyahu’s coalition includes “ultra-nationalist” parties that “seek to oppress” Arabs and secular Jews in the country by creating a majoritarian system. 

If successful, the parties will be “changing fundamentally the relationship between Israel’s judicial system and the Knesset,” Alex Lederman of the U.S.-based Israel Policy Forum told The Dispatch, “freeing them up to advance their ideological agendas in a way that has never been seen before. The religious parties will be able to change the character of the state.”

In a rare pronouncement by a U.S. president on an ally’s domestic politics, President Joe Biden urged the various factions to negotiate and reach a consensus on the reforms before moving forward with them. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed the sentiment during a visit to Israel at the end of January: “Building a consensus around new proposals is the best way to make sure they are embraced and endure.”

Neither side has much incentive to come to the table to negotiate. Supporters of the changes have the votes to forge ahead without bringing along any holdouts, and members of the opposition—several of whom shouted “shame!” when the first bill advanced—don’t want to legitimize reforms they find abhorrent by consenting even to a watered-down version of them. The opposition has conditioned its willingness to negotiate on a pause in the legislative blitz, and Netanyahu’s coalition is unlikely to slow down. In all likelihood, the reforms will continue apace, with second and third readings of the current bill likely in the coming weeks.

Grown in America, Owned by China

When that Chinese spy balloon was spotted over Montana earlier this month, a number of analysts connected its location to the many nuclear missile silos we have in the area. But what if the surveillance device was just doing some due diligence before its owner closed on some prime farmland in the Midwest?

Partly reinvigorated by balloonapalooza, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in recent weeks have raised concerns over—and introduced legislation targeting–the purchase of American farmland by affiliates of the Chinese Communist Party. “Americans should not be forced to rely on China for the food they put on the table,” GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said in a statement after announcing a bill she was sponsoring with Rep. Dan Newhouse, a fellow Washington state Republican. “Prohibiting the Chinese Communist Party from purchasing farmland in the United States is a no-brainer that will support domestic food production and decrease our dangerous dependence on foreign adversaries.”

At first glance, such legislation seems like an easy call. Why would we allow our greatest geopolitical foe to buy up land in our own backyard and export food produced here back to China? But while the messaging around the bill focuses on food insecurity, data show Americans have little to worry about on that front—at least not yet. Potential national security concerns tied to Chinese land ownership in the United States is where the real danger may lie. 

Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers’ legislation is the latest in a series of proposals over the last few years intended to limit Chinese entities’ ability to purchase American land. The most recent federal measure, enacted in the omnibus spending bill passed last December, directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to beef up its tracking and reporting on land acquisitions by foreign entities—particularly those with ties to China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. A number of states are also currently exploring laws to restrict foreign land ownership.

Despite this renewed focus, Chinese-affiliated entities don’t actually own all that much land in the U.S. Of the country’s more than 1.2 billion acres of privately held land at the end of 2021, just 3.1 percent was owned by foreign-affilated entities and individuals. The collection of top foreign holders is not exactly populated with geopolitical foes, either—Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, and the United Kingdom top the list. As of December 2021, Chinese-affiliated entities owned approximately 380,000 acres in the United States, less than 1 percent of the 40 million acres owned by non-Americans. Canadian investors, for comparison’s sake, owned 12.8 million acres. 

The current foreign risk to America’s food supply is minimal. “I don’t believe that foreign ownership poses any food security concerns,” Joseph Glauber, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute and former chief economist for USDA, told The Dispatch. “We already sell over $35 billion of agricultural products to China. One in every four bushels of soybeans grown in the U.S. is exported to China. Production grown on China-owned U.S. farmland is trivial by comparison.”

Nonetheless, Chinese investments in U.S. land have grown significantly in recent years. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, USDA data shows nearly 80 percent of China’s U.S. land stakes have been purchased in the years since 2010. “This trend is incredibly concerning and points to a much more insidious pattern of aggression,” Newhouse told The Dispatch. “We do not want to wake up 10 or 20 years from now and wish we had taken action.”

There might also be some problems with our data collection. According to a 2021 report from the Center for Strategic International Studies, USDA data on foreign ownership is often error-ridden and incomplete. In October, House Republicans requested the Government Accountability Office review USDA’s data collection and reporting on foreign farmland ownership.

Whatever the exact numbers are, China’s reliance on food imports to feed its population has grown in recent years—the country currently imports more food than it exports. A number of factors—ranging from shrinking amounts of arable land to yield inefficiencies for producing certain crops to shifting consumer demands—indicate China’s food production capacity will continue to decline, pushing leaders to expand its international investments in agriculture and food production. That quest has most often led the CCP to Latin America, with Brazil surpassing the U.S. as the largest source of China’s agricultural imports in 2021.

But the proximity of some of the Chinese-owned plots of land to U.S. military bases may signal another, more pernicious motivation for the purchases. Fufeng Group, a Chinese-owned company, has plans to build a corn milling plant on land less than 15 miles away from Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. Last month, the local government in Grand Forks moved to block the plant’s development after the Air Force concluded the project “presents a significant threat to national security with both near- and long-term risks of significant impacts to our operations in the area.”

It wasn’t an isolated incident. In 2021, a Chinese-owned company purchased more than 130,000 acres in Val Verde Country, Texas, near Laughlin Air Force Base. The proximity of these sites raises concerns over potential surveillance. “I’d think this is more espionage risk and surveillance risk,” Tom Shugart, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Newsweek. “The idea being that if China has facilities or owns land or property near military bases, they could potentially set up listening equipment or other surveillance equipment.”

While there is currently no public evidence surveillance has been set up at these locations, more information may come to light as lawmakers continue looking into China’s land holdings. Several members of Congress behind legislation scrutinizing foreign land ownership are members of the new House Select Committee on competition with China and have said the issue will be a focus of the committee’s work. 

“Chinese land purchases are happening in the Midwest, happening in Florida,” Wisconsin Representative and Select Committee Chair Mike Gallagher said.  “[The committee] wants to do field hearings, particularly where this is happening near military bases to understand what’s going on and what the right legal framework is to protect ourselves against this.”

Worth Your Time

  • In an interview published by Unherd, longtime intelligence analyst and national security official Fiona Hill discusses what the West has gotten wrong in Ukraine and how she thinks the war will end. “It’s not going to be settled on the battlefield. This isn’t going to be like the First or Second World War, with some satisfying armistice peace treaty,” she tells Freddie Sayers. “The way to look at this is to try to create the circumstances for a real negotiation, not a capitulation. I don’t think we’re going to have an absolute victory over Russia. But look, it only ends when Russians no longer want to extend territory in an imperial fashion. Leadership matters a lot here. Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t have this same way of thinking. Gorbachev himself made the decision to end the Cold War; Yeltsin did not want to reincorporate Ukraine or Belarus or any of the other countries. So you’ve got to find a formula where Russia no longer wants to expand.”
  • In The Guardian, Xan Rice profiled the rise of the “Michael Jordan” of cliff diving, Gary Hunt. “Hunt has been on a run of dominance that would be extraordinary in any sport, winning 42 of 82 Red Bull cliff diving events, and nine of 11 world series titles,” Rice writes. “He’s lean as a snake, with unbrushed blond hair, and dresses like he woke up late and grabbed whatever was at the top of the pile. Even those who know him best describe him as an enigma, a daredevil who likes to spend his free time gardening. He trains with the intensity of a modern professional athlete, diving every weekday and spending hours in the gym, and relaxes like a sportsman of a bygone era, enjoying roll-up cigarettes in the evening and several drinks too many after a win.”

Presented Without Comment  

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Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: Nick notes (🔒) the fairly bipartisan agreement that Roald Dahl’s estate should quit messing with the writer’s work, Scott takes aim (🔒) at critics of stock buybacks, and Sarah reports (🔒) Democrats are still meddling in Republican primaries and explains why South Carolina’s early presidential contest could be bad news for Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott. Plus, in the latest edition of Dispatch Politics, Andrew, David M. Drucker, and Audrey report on Jaime Herrera Beutler’s prospective Washington gubernatorial run and the presidential primary implications of an upcoming closed-door Republican donor meeting.
  • On the podcasts: Sarah takes over The Remnant with former CIA official and ex-Texas Rep. Will Hurd for a conversation on everything from America’s beauty to AI and immigration reform, and David French joins Sarah on Advisory Opinions to tackle Section 230 and another pressing legal question—do you have the right to recline your airplane seat?
  • On the site: Matthew R. Costlow outlines China’s alarming nuclear progress and Jacob Becker argues that the MAGA crowd’s inconsistent approach to Ukraine echoes movements of the past. 

Let Us Know

Can you think of any other ways to reform Israel’s judiciary that satisfy the concerns of the different factions involved? Does learning about Israel’s structure make you appreciate the United States’ system of government more or less?

Correction, February 23, 2023: Last fall’s election was the fifth in four years, not three years.

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.