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Journalist says Netanyahu's new government is a 'threat to Israeli democracy'

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) sits next to Interior and Health Minister Aryeh Deri during a weekly cabinet meeting on Jan. 8, 2023.
Ronen Zvulun
/
AFP via Getty Images
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) sits next to Interior and Health Minister Aryeh Deri during a weekly cabinet meeting on Jan. 8, 2023.

Israel's new government is the most right-wing government in the country's history. In order to regain his position as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was sworn into office Dec. 29, entered into a coalition with ultra-Orthodox religious parties and ultra-nationalist parties.

British-born Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer profiled Netanyahu in his 2018 biography Bibi. He describes Netanyahu, who's served more than 15 years as Israel's prime minister, as a knowledgeable statesman whose interests lie in macroeconomics and geopolitics. But, Pfeffer adds, Netanyahu has a "strange detachment" when it comes to social issues.

"If you ask him about social affairs or education or health policy, anything to do with that kind of stuff just doesn't interest him. He's bored by it. He doesn't see it as his key role as prime minister," Pfeffer says.

In an interview with NPR on Dec. 15, Netanyahu said he would control the far-right members of his coalition and that he'd be making the key decisions, saying, "They are joining me. I'm not joining them." But Pfeffer says that Netanyahu's disinterest in social policy opens the door for the ultra-Orthodox and ultra-right fundamentalists in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

One issue at the forefront is the definition of who is Jewish.

"It isn't quite clear yet what they can do policy-wise, because how does a government go about defining identity? It's not a thing that governments usually do," Pfeffer says. "One possibility is that they will change educational programs in schools so that they will reflect very narrow definitions of Jewishness and Jewish identity."

Currently, anyone who is a child or a grandchild of a Jewish person – and their spouses - can immigrate to Israel, but some members of the new government want to change that.

"They want to make those definitions much more stringent," Pfeffer says. For example, converts to Judaism would only be recognized if they had converted through an ultra-Orthodox rabbi — and not through another stream of Judaism, such as Reform or Conservative.

"This could impact millions of people around the world who consider themselves [to be] Jewish," Pfeffer notes. "The Jewish state would no longer consider them [to be] Jewish and therefore no longer eligible to be Israeli citizens."

Pfeffer says that members of Netanyahu's coalition are also targeting the Israeli Supreme Court, which has historically been strong and sometimes interventionist, as well as its independent media.

"What Netanyahu's new government is doing is basically eroding those strong elements of Israeli democracy, the issues of separation of powers, the fact that the courts could intervene and say what the government is doing is illegal and therefore the government has to stop," Pfeffer says. "All these things are weakening those elements of Israeli democracy, which were and have been traditionally very strong, and that is certainly a threat to Israeli democracy."


Interview highlights

On the ruling party's plan to weaken the Supreme Court

If you believe in liberal democracy — and this is the way it should be — there should be a balance between the executive and the elected branches and a court which can sometimes go in and say, "Well, these these things are unconstitutional and they're wrong, and therefore the government can't do that." Now, this government is very clear that their definition of democracy is they have a majority and therefore they can rule, and the Court, which is unelected, has no business telling them what to do. So it's very much a battle over the definition of democracy in Israel, which has, until now, had this balance between the powers. ... They haven't yet passed it in legislation, but their plan is to dramatically weaken the Supreme Court.

On how this new government may affect the lives of Palestinians

On the immediate level, I don't think there will be that much difference. It's not as if the previous government, even though it was a centrist government, was offering anything to the Palestinians. This government was only around for a year and a half. Before that, we had the 12 years of Netanyahu governments, which were not as radical as this, but they didn't do anything either to try and find a solution. It certainly has no impetus whatsoever to start again a political process with the aim of finding any kind of solution for the conflict. The real question is whether this new government will try and do new things to make life even more difficult for Palestinians, and also, perhaps more crucially, to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.

On the ultra-Orthodox limiting who is considered Jewish

Things have changed over the years, and it's true that Israel has, for many years, encouraged Jews from around the world to emigrate to Israel. Now there's a feeling amongst the ultra-Orthodox and amongst the religious nationalists that a lot of these immigrants are, in their eyes, not Jewish. Mainly they're talking nowadays about the people who've been arriving from the former Soviet Union. So there's this, I think, rather toxic campaign to brand them as being "fake" Jews or being Christian, and people just coming to Israel for welfare benefits, and also people coming to erode Israel's Jewish identity or Jewish character, because these people don't necessarily observe all the strictures that they observe. They don't keep kosher, they don't keep Shabbat. ...

They want to make it clear that they are the ones who are the gatekeepers, that they're the ones who make the definition of who is a Jew. And there's also the political issue, because a lot of these immigrants, if they're not Orthodox-observant in the way that they are, they would probably politically also not support the parties in this government. So there's also that consideration — when large numbers are coming, as they are right now from Russia and Ukraine and moving to Israel because of the situation of the war in Ukraine and the situation in Putin's Russia — most of these people have no affinity whatsoever with the type of Jewish Orthodoxy that these parties are promoting. They won't be voting for them either. So that's also a consideration.

On if the new government's move to the far right is a threat to the future of Israeli democracy

Israeli democracy is a very strange creature, because, on the one hand, Israel has an incredibly robust electoral process, very high turnout. People trust the results of the election. The elections have time and again proved themselves in being capable of changing the government. So in the strength of the electoral system and the strength of the court system, Israel has sent a prime minister and a president to prison, before the Netanyahu trial, without having a coup or anything like that. The media in Israel is very critical of the government. Within the media there are different voices, but it's not muzzled in any real way. So you have all those elements of a democracy.

On the other hand, you have very problematic issues with Israeli democracy before this government. There's no civil marriage. So the whole issue of freedom of religion is very problematic. Entire communities in Israel can live isolated from Israeli society. Israel occupies the Palestinian territories, and that means millions of Palestinians basically have their lives controlled by Israel without having political rights. So it's a democracy in many ways, and a strong democracy in many ways, and in other ways it isn't.

Amy Salit and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.