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How much is Israel's new government trying to change the balance of power?


We have a dissenting view of the new government in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu is prime minister once again, taking power with a coalition that includes far-right figures. Though he was always conservative, this government is different than past ones and includes some politicians linked with banned extremist groups. In Netanyahu's most recent conversation on this program, he said not to worry about his new allies.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: They're joining me. I'm not joining them. I'll have two hands firmly on the steering wheel. I won't let anybody do anything to LGBT or to deny our Arab citizens their rights or anything like that - just won't happen. And the test of time will prove that.

INSKEEP: Now a little time has passed, a few weeks anyway. And Dahlia Scheindlin has been watching. She is a fellow at The Century Foundation. She is a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and she is in Tel Aviv. Welcome to the program.

DAHLIA SCHEINDLIN: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: How much is this new government trying to change the balance of power in Israel?

SCHEINDLIN: It is absolutely trying to overturn the balance of power. In the Israeli political system, we have an unusual situation in which there are almost no institutional and formal checks and balances, frankly, on the executive power. And that's because the executive is formed out of a coalition government which represents a parliamentary majority. So ultimately, the executive power can control the legislature. And what this government is trying very hard to do and looks very closely poised to do is essentially demolish the independence of the judiciary in general but also essentially stop the power of judicial review, stop the authority of the court, both to use judicial review and allow the Knesset to override it, which basically allows the government to override it with pretty much any coalition majority.

INSKEEP: The prime minister calls that, though, a minor correction. Is it?

SCHEINDLIN: No, it's not a minor correction. Yes, they have been trying to portray this as a simple adjustment. They call it a reform. But even very few of their supporters see it that way. We see from public opinion polling that a majority of the public wants the court to continue to exercise judicial review. Of course, we've seen widespread protests. And I don't think anybody truly sees this as a simple adjustment of the balance of powers, knowing that the judiciary is one of the few constraining forces and the only constraining force on legislation that might violate basic human and civil rights in Israel.

INSKEEP: A shift in the balance of power in theory doesn't hurt anybody until the government then abuses that in some way, I suppose. So that leads to my next question. Are there specific concrete ways in which this new government has acted in a way that affects people that seems far right to you?

SCHEINDLIN: Absolutely. I mean, the government is very new, but we've seen the kinds of promises they've made to the far right, specifically religious Zionism in their constituent parties. I think the obvious is discrimination against the Arab minority in Israel. There was also a very strong concern that there would be discrimination against the LGBTQ community, and that's because several members of these coalition partners are openly and, frankly, rather proudly homophobic. I don't even like the word homophobic. I mean, it's not just fear of them. It's active hostility against them. You know, anybody can be discriminated against if the law allows it. Now, that's before even getting to religion and state because this is a very religious government. They would like to essentially force religious practice on all Israelis, particularly in terms of keeping the Sabbath, which is no less than religious coercion for anybody who is not as Orthodox as the most Orthodox coalition members. And they're a minority.

And, of course, the ramifications for the West Bank - this government is certainly planning to create legislation that would advance annexation, legalize settlements, expand settlements, reinstate legislation that had been struck down by the Supreme Court because it involves the theft of private Palestinian land and anything else that will perpetuate Israel's occupation and de facto sovereignty over all of the West Bank and effective control over Gaza.

INSKEEP: I want to note that these are things that members of the governing coalition have proposed or discussed rather than done. Netanyahu says he's not going to let them do anything too extreme. Are there any signs that the prime minister will restrain the more extreme members of his group?

SCHEINDLIN: Yeah, there's a very common perception that Netanyahu is actually moderate and he simply depends on these right-wing coalition partners, but that he will certainly restrain them when it comes down to it. Now, in the past, he has restrained justice ministers that have already been taking the position of trying to weaken the independence of the judiciary and the authority of judicial review in previous years. But that kind of restraint was before Netanyahu himself was standing trial on three counts of corruption. Nevertheless, over the course of the last decade, Netanyahu has also nurtured and essentially rewarded and promoted the very figures both within his party and within his coalition partners who have been conducting these attacks on the court over the course of a decade.

So calling on people to trust him is not a constitutional check and balance on power. The very idea of a liberal democracy is that the institutions are responsible for guaranteeing, you know, restraint on the state's power and preserving the rights of citizens. It is not a personalized system in which one person says we're going to destroy the entire system. You will have no institutional checks. But as long as you keep me in power, I will hold back the worst of the policies, no matter who his coalition partners would be. That is not a democratic approach to governance.

INSKEEP: Israeli newspaper columnist Dahlia Scheindlin, thank you so much.

SCHEINDLIN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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