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Netanyahu may have cooled down unrest in Israel, but it isn't gone


In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to overhaul the judicial system has essentially shut the country down amid massive protests and a general strike of government workers. The tension has been building for months, but it hit fever pitch last night after Netanyahu fired his defense minister, who opposed the prime minister's proposed overhaul of the nation's courts. Amid the backlash, Netanyahu said earlier today he will delay his proposal, which many people in Israel believe is a threat to the country's democracy.

Let's bring in Daniel Shapiro. He's former U.S. ambassador to Israel. Welcome.

DANIEL SHAPIRO: Good to be with you.

FLORIDO: You're in Tel Aviv. What impact is the prime minister's announcement today to delay this plan having on the protests and the broader state of affairs as you can see it?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think it gives everybody a chance to exhale for a moment. Israel is about to go through a period of holidays - Passover, and then its Independence Day, Memorial Day period. Those are periods when usually the country tries to be, A, relaxed and, B, somewhat unified. And the last three months have been anything but relaxed and unified. It's been, as you said, a fever pitch of tension, of protests. So the announcement that that legislation is now being postponed at least gives time to breathe. He did say that following the holidays, when the Knesset returns to session in May...

FLORIDO: The Knesset being the Israeli parliament.

SHAPIRO: Yes, that's right - he would make another attempt to pass that legislation. But at least for now, people are able to exhale, and perhaps the protests will take a break for the holidays.

FLORIDO: Let's step back for a second. The prime minister is selling his plan as a set of judicial reforms. But what exactly would this plan do?

SHAPIRO: The plan would give the executive branch - and, really, the executive and the legislative are very much fused in the Israeli system - a great deal more control, maybe almost supreme control, of the judicial system, first by giving them the total control over the appointment of judges and, second, it would remove from the courts' ability to review legislation or declare it unconstitutional or declare actions by the executive branch unpermissible (ph). And the overall concern that that raised with many Israelis who were protesting in these last weeks was that it would produce a concentration of power with virtually no check or balance in one branch of government, rendering the supreme court quite toothless.

FLORIDO: Judging by the uproar, this fight seems to be symbolic of maybe a much deeper fight about Israel's future. Can you help us understand why so many people are so opposed?

SHAPIRO: Well, it's certainly touched some deeper societal divisions. Obviously, Israelis are very proud of their democracy and believe it's something that has served the country well for its 75 years. But it also has struck other divisions in Israeli society. Some who favored this overhaul of the judicial system did so because they felt the court prevented them from achieving their goals. Some of those goals included significant expansion of West Bank settlements in ways that the court was able to block. But at the same time, those who were protesting had a very legitimate concern that those other parts of society, the more right wing, the more religious parts of society might find that they had a greater say over the lives of the more progressive and more secular parts of society. Those divisions are very near the surface right now.

FLORIDO: Help us understand, Ambassador, the U.S. position on this. What has the Biden administration said and done on this issue so far?

SHAPIRO: The Biden administration has said very clearly in public that the core of the U.S.-Israel relationship is the common values and common institutions and common practices of the two democratic societies. Now, President Biden is a great believer in Israel, in this democracy, and supporter of its security and right to defend itself. But he was very clear that when making changes, fundamental changes in the system of governance in a democratic society, it's critical to achieve as broad a consensus as possible so those changes are widely accepted and enduring. He also made clear that any changes that would harm the traditional values of separation of powers, of rule of law, would be very, very concerning.

FLORIDO: Well, where do you think Netanyahu goes from here? Do you think that these protests have the potential to force him to withdraw his proposal, or might he feel more determined than ever to push it through?

SHAPIRO: Well, what he said in his speech tonight defers the crisis. It doesn't necessarily solve the crisis. He still has pressure from members of his coalition who badly want to see this rebalance occur and to have the court significantly weakened, and they are parties that he depends on to stay in power and to maintain his coalition. He still, of course, has all of the protesters that have expressed their opposition, and in polls, that's more than 50% of Israelis. So it may be that the same crisis that Israel has just been through returns over the summer. Hopefully they will find a way toward a more consensual outcome.

FLORIDO: A fascinating, developing story. Dan Shapiro is a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, now with the Atlantic Council. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.