Biden condemns spyware in democracies amid Israel row

Joe Biden
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a town hall on Sunday, July 7, 2019, in Charleston, S.C. (Meg Kinnard/AP)

Biden condemns spyware in democracies amid Israel row

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President Joe Biden condemned government use of commercial spyware in a repudiation of Israeli-made surveillance technology that coincided with deepening anxiety about Israel‘s democracy under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“One key focus of our democracy work will be in making sure that technologies can continue to develop that are used to advance democratic governance, not used to undermine it,” Biden told a virtual session of the 2023 Summit for Democracy. “U.S taxpayer dollars should not — should not — support companies that are willing to sell their products to convey human rights violations and violations.”

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Biden couched that statement as an assurance that U.S. agencies would not use such systems just months after revelations that the FBI considered the use of spyware developed by an Israeli tech company. Biden’s team restricted that company’s access to the U.S. market in 2021, but this week’s move to renounce such programs put a spotlight on an embarrassing subject for Netanyahu as the two leaders clash about a proposed overhaul of the Israeli judiciary that Biden and Netanyahu’s domestic critics regard as a threat to Israel’s system of governance.

“Israel and the United States have had their occasional differences, but I want to assure you that the alliance between the world’s greatest democracy and a strong, proud, and independent democracy, Israel, in the heart of the Middle East is unshakable,” Netanyahu affirmed in his own virtual appearance at the summit. “Nothing can change that.”

Netanyahu’s certitude was belied by the eruption of an acrimonious international dispute over the fate of a draft legislation that would cripple the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to strike down laws passed by the Israeli parliament. On Monday, Netanyahu paused the process of passing the legislation in the face of a nationwide strike, but Biden acknowledged while traveling Tuesday that he remains “very concerned” about the ramifications of the initiative for Israeli society.

“They cannot continue down this road,” Biden said Tuesday evening. “Hopefully, the prime minister will act in a way that he is going to try to work out some genuine compromise. But that remains to be seen.”

Netanyahu was quick to retort that Israeli “makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.” His allies were more dismissive.

“They need to understand that Israel is an independent country and no longer a star on the U.S. flag,” said Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, one of the far-right leaders who has led the charge for the law.

A more mainstream Netanyahu ally and former envoy to the United States responded with an even sharper barb by arguing that Biden should avoid “preaching democracy” so soon after the Jan. 6 crisis at the Capitol.

“I don’t think a country that has experienced, not so long ago, an insurrection is in a position to be preaching democracy to Israel or in fact to anybody,” former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said Wednesday. “It is not exactly in a position to tell us what is democratic and what is not democratic.”

Netanyahu struck a more conciliatory note during his appearance at the democracy summit.

“Israel is undergoing, in its robust democracy, a very intensive public debate, and the debate is how do we ensure a proper democracy,” he said. “Democracy means the will of the people as expressed by a majority, and it also means protection of civil rights, individual rights. It’s the balance between the two. I want to assure you that Israel was, is, and it will always remain a proud, strong, and vibrant democracy, as a beacon of liberty and shared prosperity in the heart of the Middle East.”

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U.S. officials welcomed Netanyahu’s more modulated tone — “There’s a lot to like about it,” as White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday — but Biden didn’t give Netanyahu any reason to believe that he’ll drop the issue.

“As you can probably tell, strengthening democracy is a subject about which I am somewhat passionate,” Biden told the summit. “I believe this is a defining challenge of our age.”

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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