An Inside the Times Interview With Isabel Kershner, a Correspondent in the Jerusalem Bureau

From an Inside the Times interview by Ian Prasad Philbrick headlined “Israel Moves Right at ‘Dizzying Speed'”:

Israel’s government, the most right-wing in its history, is barely three weeks old and already leaving its mark, quickly pressing ahead with legislation that critics fear will erode Israeli democracy. Benjamin Netanyahu has returned as prime minister, this time leading a coalition of conservative, far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties.

I spoke with Isabel Kershner, a correspondent in The Times’s Jerusalem bureau, about the right’s push to transform Israel.

Ian: What is the new government trying to accomplish?

Isabel: The right-wing parties in the coalition are all extremely ideological, and Netanyahu has made a lot of concessions to them. The new minister of national security is an ultranationalist who has been convicted of inciting anti-Arab racism. He got more authority over the police. The new hard-right finance minister is claiming more authority over Jewish settlements and civilian affairs in the occupied West Bank. Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers want more autonomy and more funding for religious students and schools.

The government is also moving to radically overhaul the judiciary. There’s a perception on the right that the Supreme Court is overly activist and sides with liberals on issues like settlements. Now the coalition wants to give parliament more power to select judges and override Supreme Court rulings. Critics say the coalition’s proposed changes would completely change the nature of Israel’s liberal democracy, which is dynamic but also fragile. Israel doesn’t have a formal constitution; it has basic laws that can be changed with 61 out of 120 votes in the parliament. Netanyahu’s coalition has 64.

Netanyahu is on trial for corruption. Has that made him more reliant on the far right?

Israel’s whole political morass — the deadlock that’s produced five elections in four years — is basically because Netanyahu has been indicted on corruption charges but won’t step aside. In the past, Netanyahu preferred to form governments with more centrist or even center-left parties. This time, the centrists refused to align with a prime minister on trial, so Netanyahu was at the mercy of far-right parties after the election. They were the only partners he could form a government with, and they knew that.

How has the country reacted?

What’s taken many Israelis by surprise is the dizzying speed and determination with which the new government has moved ahead. That’s really galvanized the opposition. Before the election, the liberal and centrist parties in parliament basically failed to cooperate with each other. Suddenly you’re seeing them sitting together, planning the next demonstration and making radical statements of their own. Yair Lapid, the centrist opposition leader, said the judicial overhaul constituted “extreme regime change” and could eliminate Israeli democracy.

It reminds me of the mood in the U.S. after Donald Trump got elected.

There was a pro-L.G.B.T.Q. protest on the day the new government was sworn in, because Netanyahu’s coalition includes some extremely anti-gay lawmakers. There have since been protests, including a big one last night, in Tel Aviv, a more secular, liberal city about an hour from Jerusalem.

Israel has seen big protests before. In recent years anti-Netanyahu demonstrators protested outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. But that was a much more grass-roots, bottom-up movement. What we’re seeing now is the leaders of the opposition parties calling on people to come out into the streets.

What does the new government mean for relations with the Palestinians?

The levels of confidence are below zero. One of the main concerns for the Palestinian Arabs who make up one-fifth of Israel’s citizens is a surge in crime, murders and criminal gang warfare. The previous Israeli government, which for the first time included a small Islamic Arab party in the governing coalition, prioritized fighting crime in conjunction with Arab local authorities. Now the minister overseeing the police has a history of being an anti-Arab activist and provocateur. Meanwhile, the situation regarding the Palestinians in the occupied territories was already tense, and things have quickly become confrontational.

How has all this left Israelis feeling about the state of their politics?

Things here feel more polarized than ever, and there’s a lot at stake. The country is split over what kind of democracy Israel should be and how it’s going to relate to Palestinians. Even among the half of the country that did vote for a right-wing party, not all of them are happy. It’s gone a bit further than some of them wanted. Some are throwing their hands up or switching off the news. Anecdotally, I’m hearing about more people applying for foreign passports. Among those who oppose the government, there’s a kind of doomsday feel.

More about Isabel: She grew up in the United Kingdom, speaks Hebrew and studied Arabic at Oxford University. She spent a gap year in Israel, then another year in Egypt. An early obsession with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict led her to journalism.

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