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What Israel's new judicial law says about its democracy


Let's go to Israel now, where violent protests have erupted in response to a new law just passed today that limits the powers of that country's Supreme Court. Protesters say the new law gives Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu too much power, that Israel's very democracy is at stake. Well, the idea of democracy under threat is, of course, all too familiar here in the U.S.

To get a sense of what's the same and what is different and what this new Israeli law may tell us about the state of democracy there, I am joined now by political analyst Dahlia Scheindlin from just outside Jerusalem. And Dahlia, I know you're normally based in Tel Aviv. As I say, right now, you're in a village near Jerusalem. What does it feel like there today?

DAHLIA SCHEINDLIN: Well, I think I feel here like people do everywhere in the country, which is very, very concerned. I would say even nervous. Now, everybody is a big word. Let's go by the election results. About half of Israelis who did not vote for this government - plus, from all polling, we know a certain slice of people who did vote for the government - are deeply opposed to the legislation that was passed today, which essentially removes one of the tools that the Supreme Court has used to place constraints or to reject government decisions on occasion. Now, this is what we call the reasonability basis. It's a legal reasoning that the right-wing parties that currently hold the government have been trying to get rid of for a long time because they don't want any constraints on the executive.

KELLY: So just practically speaking - I'm trying to understand this - this is if the government does something that the Supreme Court thinks is unreasonable, the court used to be able to block it. And as of today, with this new law, they won't be able to. Is that the gist?

SCHEINDLIN: Yeah, that's the gist of it. You know, another one of the chief concerns is that the government could hire inappropriate people in government who essentially corrode the idea of accountable and responsible government and can fire people at will if they don't conform to the government's perspective on everything. Now, some people might say, but that's called being allowed to govern. Well, there is no such thing in a democracy as governing without checks and balances on state power.

KELLY: Stay with that point - checks and balances, separation of powers - because when we're taking on this question of whether this new law threatens democracy, democracy looks and operates quite differently in Israel than how we understand it here in the U.S.

SCHEINDLIN: It does. And I think that this is something that I think has been misleading over the years in the sense that the rest of the world has often looked to Israel as, essentially, a model democracy on some level. And I think that it is worth realizing that Israel can't be compared to Western democracies that are, most of the time, at peace. Israel has essentially always been either at war or involved in a protracted military occupation, which is anti-democratic by nature. But the second major issue is that Israel has declined to build some of the key institutional pillars of democracy from the start.

KELLY: There is no constitution, for example.

SCHEINDLIN: There is no constitution. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. We have no real separation between the legislature and the executive powers because it's a parliamentary system. We only have a single chamber of our parliament, unlike nearly all other democracies. No president with a veto - our president is ceremonial. And we're not part of international courts. We don't even have term limits on the prime minister because it's a party system.

KELLY: And then, going directly to the courts - because that's what this new law deals with - you know, here in the U.S., there are, of course, all kinds of questions about perceived...


KELLY: ...Politicization of the Supreme Court. How about in Israel?

SCHEINDLIN: Well, that accusation has been around for a long time. And I think that from the moment the Israeli right wing took a populist turn - and when I say populist, I mean ultra-nationalist and certainly targeting citizens such as, you know, critics of the government, civil society, the Arab Palestinian minority in Israel, left wingers. And this goes back about a decade. When that happened, then people began challenging these policies and bills and legislation in the Supreme Court, and thus began the theme - a very, very consistent, almost unrelenting theme - that the court has imposed an unwanted universalist liberal perspective on the country.

KELLY: So square this with the argument that the conservative right in Israel would make. They are saying this new law will restore the balance of powers there. I've seen the justice minister being quoted saying this is an effort at fixing the justice system. Fact check that for us.

SCHEINDLIN: Oh, yes. Well, I mean, that is the big theme of the government. Even the prime minister this evening said this is not the end of democracy; this is the realization of democracy. I can't square that for you. What it does is remove one of the few constraints that exist on the power of the executive. I just - the only way I can explain it to you is what the government means. What they mean is that once there are elections, nothing should constrain what the government does with the mandate that it's been given by the people because the majority rules.

Now, you cannot redefine democracy to be a stripped-down form of elections alone. The idea of majority rules has never been the meaning of democracy. It's always been a matter of protecting - of representative government and protection of the individual. You can't do that without checks and balances on power. You can't do that without protecting, institutionally, the full range of civil rights. Without those, elections aren't meaningful anyway.

KELLY: Dahlia Scheindlin is a policy fellow at the think tank Century International, also a columnist for Haaretz. She joined us from near Jerusalem. Thank you.

SCHEINDLIN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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