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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses judicial system overhaul

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had an eventful week. His governing coalition defied months of protest to limit the power of Israel's Supreme Court. And Netanyahu himself went to the hospital to get a pacemaker.

How is your health?

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: It's actually very good. But somebody said to me I'm now the peacemaker with a pacemaker.

INSKEEP: Netanyahu has been Israel's prime minister for more years than anyone in history. He was ousted amid a corruption trial but came back at the head of a right-wing coalition. During a previous appearance on this program, he said he would not be following his most extreme allies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NETANYAHU: They are joining me. I'm not joining them. I'll have two hands firmly on the steering wheel.

INSKEEP: But the government's effort to weaken the courts has prompted half a year of protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: And when one of the proposed changes passed this week, protest leader Shikma Bressler told us the right wing was driving the car after all.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHIKMA BRESSLER: Unfortunately, I have no other word but saying that he was lying to you guys over there.

INSKEEP: Now, in response to protests, Netanyahu has dropped one proposal to let the Knesset vote to overrule court decisions. But he told us he would still like the other changes and says Monday's vote was a minor one. The governing majority can now appoint officials or pass laws without the court rejecting them as unreasonable.

NETANYAHU: Now that we've passed it and we have the votes to continue legislating, maybe now we'll be able to get some buy-in from the opposition. And I'm prepared to do that. We can find a middle ground, and we should do it.

INSKEEP: I understand what you're saying, that you cast this as a minor change, but it was a check on your power that did, in fact, check things that you wanted to do in the very recent past. For example, Aryeh Deri was someone who you appointed to the government who was rejected by the Supreme Court because he'd been convicted of tax fraud. So now that that check on your power is gone, will you reappoint him?

NETANYAHU: Well, the court didn't strike Deri's appointment down because it's illegal. It's a political question, and political questions are solved in elections. Each candidate...

INSKEEP: They said it was unreasonable. Right.

NETANYAHU: Yeah. They said it's unreasonable. But they didn't say - it's not on grounds of any illegality, but on a ground of unreasonableness. We just had an election, and Deri was elected by a large - I mean, like, almost half a million voters who thought it was reasonable.

INSKEEP: But we were told that...

NETANYAHU: So obviously...

INSKEEP: ...As part of his sentencing that he committed not to return to politics. And there he was, returning to politics. I could see a court finding that unreasonable.

NETANYAHU: Yeah. But that's not the legal argument. If you want to say it, they have a hundred ways of saying it. They can say it's a conflict of interest. They can say they still have a lot of checks. They can say this is undue process. You don't strike down an appointment simply by saying that it's basically subjectively unreasonable. You don't have that power.

INSKEEP: Will you reappoint him then?

NETANYAHU: Well, you know, it depends what happens, of course, with the legislation. We have to see. But if it stands, you know, I expect it to happen.

INSKEEP: The Supreme Court could still throw out the law that limits its own power. But if the law stays in force, the man convicted of tax fraud will come into a powerful government position. Netanyahu insists that he will not take another step. He will not use his majority's new power to interfere with the attorney general, whose office is overseeing Netanyahu's corruption trial, which is still ongoing.

NETANYAHU: Only one request - that we have live television coverage of the trial, and I'll tell you, not merely because it's the best show in town, but because it lets the truth come out.

INSKEEP: I think you're saying that you don't think that you need to fire the attorney general to win the trial. Is that what you're saying?

NETANYAHU: I'm saying it's not on the table, and it won't happen. We have a trial. We have judges. They'll decide.

INSKEEP: His opponents have cast this change in the law as a threat to democracy. No one person should have all the power, and this removes one check on his. Netanyahu insists he also favors democracy - majority rule - in particular the majority his coalition enjoys right now in the Knesset.

NETANYAHU: The larger question is bringing back balance to the three branches of government. In Israel, by overwhelming consent, people agree that the balance between the three branches of government has been taken off the rails in the last 20 years, and people want to bring it back.

INSKEEP: I want to note, though, Prime Minister, you mentioned the three branches of government, which Americans will be familiar with from our system...

NETANYAHU: Right.

INSKEEP: ...In which, you know very well, there's the legislative; there's the executive; and there's the judicial. In Israel, as in many countries, the legislature and the executive are fundamentally the same. You are appointed by the legislature. And so the court is or was the check on your power. Isn't it concerning to remove that check or to weaken it, as I think you would probably put it?

NETANYAHU: Well, you don't want to weaken it. You want an independent judiciary. You just don't want an all-powerful judiciary, which Israel uniquely has. It has the most powerful judiciary on Earth in any democracy. And that doesn't bode well for the balance of power that we're talking about. Yes, you're right. In parliamentary democracies, the executive and the legislative are a mix. But the balance has to be between these two branches.

INSKEEP: The leader of another democracy urged Israel not to act in this way - President Biden. Israel's leader says it's Israel's business.

NETANYAHU: The decision ultimately is made in our democracies as sovereign states by our elected officials, and that's what is happening in Israel.

INSKEEP: I think one of the reasons that President Biden raised concerns about Israel's security is that he would be aware that many Israeli reservists have said they will refuse to attend training when called. At what point does that begin to affect your national defense?

NETANYAHU: I don't think it's affecting our national defenses. It was very strong. And I think our enemies, who certainly don't understand democracy - like Hezbollah or Iran or others - don't understand that we can have moments of conflict and disagreement and protests and demonstrations in democracies that do not bring down our systems. But I'll tell you one thing. First of all, there are - you know, there are a thousand or several thousand who voiced their - of the reservists - who voiced their opposition. You didn't hear about close to 100,000 who did the exact opposite or that there was a demonstration of a quarter of a million supporting the reform the other night in Tel Aviv. You just don't hear about that.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned the counterdemonstration, Prime Minister, the other day, the pro judicial reform demonstrations, because it was noted that many of the people who are in favor of the judicial reforms are settlers in the West Bank. And I'd like to know if there is a connection here. Is part of your concern about the Supreme Court that, in your view, it has sometimes taken the side of Palestinians in disputes?

NETANYAHU: No. Part of my concern on the Supreme Court is that it is nullified often what are democratic - the will of the majority on many things. I don't think this is so much a left-right division, divide in the sense of settlers and so on. It's really the question of who makes the decision in a democracy.

INSKEEP: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It's a pleasure talking with you again. Thank you, sir.

NETANYAHU: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He spoke near the end of a week in which Israel's parliament, the Knesset, voted to remove one of the checks on its power. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.