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

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.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Israel recently elected the most right-wing government in its history, becoming another democratic country that many observers think is moving toward authoritarianism. Benjamin Netanyahu returned to his former position as prime minister by forming a coalition with ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties. Netanyahu was sworn in December 29. My guest Anshel Pfeffer writes that already, coalition members are calling for the arrest of leaders of the opposition. Pfeffer says ultra-Orthodox fundamentalists in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, may succeed in irrevocably changing Israel's identity, its education system, the cultural and media landscape and even the definition of who is a Jew and who, therefore, is guaranteed the right to become an Israeli citizen. The new government is also taking a hard line against Palestinians. Netanyahu has had a friendly relationship with Putin. And that has implications for Russia's war in Ukraine.

Anshel Pfeffer is a British-born Israeli journalist who writes commentary and a column for the Israeli publication Haaretz. He's also the Israel correspondent for the British publication The Economist. And he's the author of a biography of Netanyahu called "Bibi."

Anshel Pfeffer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Is it fair to say that the ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalists in Israel who formed the coalition with Netanyahu are anti-democratic? The new coalition wants to limit the power of the supreme court. Explain what the new government wants to do with the supreme court.

ANSHEL PFEFFER: Well, first of all, it very much has to do with your definition of democracy. Israel has had a quite strong and sometimes interventionist supreme court, which has disqualified legislation and various government decisions over the past. And 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 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. And so it's very much a battle over the definition of democracy in Israel, which until now has had this balance between the powers. And now what they're doing is - what they're intending to do, they haven't yet passed it in legislation, but their plan is to dramatically weaken the supreme court.

GROSS: Well, the legislature, the Knesset, wants to be able to overrule the supreme court and also have more power in appointing who's on the supreme court. So that's really having it both ways.

PFEFFER: This is an argument that's been going on in Israel for many years. But what we haven't had so far is a coalition so hellbent on changing that and, within the coalition, doesn't seem to be any dissenting voices. So they seem to have the majority to make those radical changes.

GROSS: You describe the far-right, ultra-Orthodox parties as planning a hostile takeover of Jewish identity. There are several new bureaus that are being created in the new government, a Bureau of Jewish Affairs, a Heritage Ministry, a Jerusalem and Tradition Ministry, a new Jewish Identity Directorate. What are some of the goals of these new ministries?

PFEFFER: 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. So a lot of this so far is some type of fundamentalist gesture politics. We've yet to see, really, what they plan to do in actual policy. One possibility is that they will change educational programs in schools and these - and so that they will reflect very narrow definitions of Jewishness and Jewish identity. Other possibilities are to do with actual rights. If a certain community wants to, for example, go and pray at the Western Wall, which is a place for all Jews - so they want to enshrine the fact that only ultra-Orthodox rabbis will decide who can pray there. And, I mean, that is the case to a large degree today. But they want to make that even clearer.

And then there's the issue, which you mentioned earlier on, of immigration. Now, the Law of Return, which is Israel's probably most unique - and some call it the DNA of Israel - allows anybody of Jewish heritage to come to Israel and become a citizen. Now, they want to make it clear that the definitions of who can do that are much narrower and are based on ultra-Orthodox rulings rather than what it is today, a much more amorphic and broad definition.

GROSS: What's the difference between those definitions?

PFEFFER: Well, first of all, there's the issue of dissent. So currently, anybody who is a son - a child or a grandchild of a Jewish person can also immigrate to Israel. They want - this will cancel that. And then the people who say, well, I'm Jewish and not just the child or grandchild of a Jew, they want to make those definitions much more stringent and make it clear that, for example, someone who has converted to Judaism, only if they've converted through an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and not through a reformer or conservative or other streams of Judaism, which are recognized around the world but not by them, then they won't be recognized as Jews. And this could impact millions of people around the world who consider themselves being Jewish. And the Jewish state will no longer consider them being Jewish and therefore no longer eligible to be Israeli citizens.

GROSS: Why do the ultra-Orthodox want to limit who is considered Jewish? My understanding has always been Israel wants Jews to move there.

PFEFFER: Well, things have changed over the years. And it's true that Israel has for many years encouraged Jews from around the world to immigrate 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 have 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 eat kosher. They don't keep Shabbat. And because in the former - in the Soviet Union, people were considered Jewish also if their father was Jewish. And under Orthodox law, Judaism descends through the mother. So for them, these are very major issues of Jewish. And they want to make it clear that they are the ones who are the gatekeepers. They're the ones who make the definition of who is a Jew.

And this is 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 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.

GROSS: What are the implications for LGBTQ rights, because both the ultranationalists and the ultra-Orthodox are pretty anti-gay?

PFEFFER: The ultra-Orthodox have an attitude of, basically, ignoring the issue, as if it doesn't exist. They don't want to even acknowledge the fact that there is homosexuality or other types of sexual persuasions. When it comes to some of the ultranationalists, they are actively and openly homophobic, and that's part of some of these party's platforms. And some of their leaders have quite actively campaigned against any kind of rights for the LGBTQ. And one of the things that we can expect is that because the leader of one of these parties, the Noam Party, which is - basically its entire platform is based around saying that the whole issue of gay rights is some kind of crazy progressive idea intended to erode the Jewish values and family values, etc. Their leader is now in charge of educational programs, and we can see in that - we can expect that there will be some kind of attempt to change those programs. And today, there is quite - at least within secular state schools, there's quite an open attitude on that issue. And already, we're seeing in local authorities where the community is much more secular, there are already calls there not to cooperate with this new directorate, which will be in charge of educational programs. So that is already one room for concern.

Now, Netanyahu is very much aware of how this creates an image problem for his new government. So Likud - as a partner to Netanyahu's party, Likud does have openly gay members, and it's - the new Knesset speaker, a senior Likud member, is openly gay. And what Netanyahu did on the day when his government was inaugurated, he - to make a point, like, look who our new Knesset speaker is and welcoming his husband, who was sitting with their two children and looking on from the gallery. And then they made a whole party for him, which is not something that was done in previous Knesset inaugurations. They didn't do such a big event for the new speaker. It was very clear Netanyahu was trying to show look how open we are and trying to kind of suppress any idea that his new coalition would would make changes. But the fact is that he did give power to his coalition partners to make these changes. So it does look a bit like pinkwashing.

GROSS: So Avi Maoz is a deputy minister who you refer to and is involved in now reshaping part of the education system. I think he also wants to ban pride parades and legalize conversion therapy.

PFEFFER: Well, that's not something he has the power to do, but he's certainly pushing for that. And there are other parts of the coalition who will push for that.

GROSS: It says something about what he believes and what he stands for.

PFEFFER: It certainly is what he stands for. But I think that actually the gay pride parade is something that they won't touch because that is something that you hold it once a year, and it allows the government to say, you know, look how open we are. Look at the massive pride parades that we have in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, while on a daily basis, other much more important things are being eroded.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer. He's a correspondent and columnist for the Israeli publication Haaretz and the Israeli correspondent for the British publication The Economist. He's the author of a biography of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has started his sixth term as Israel's prime minister. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer. He's been writing about Israel's new far-right government, the result of a coalition between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties. Pfeffer is also the author of a biography of Netanyahu called "Bibi."

So now that the Israeli government is dominated by the ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties, what impact do you think that will have on the lives of women? You know, you describe the ultra-Orthodox as having lived in a pretty insular community, and they wanted to preserve the beliefs and customs and, you know, religious practices of their community. But now they want to broaden that and have the larger Israeli society conform to some of those practices and beliefs. So what are some of the practices and beliefs within the ultra-Orthodox community that the new government may want to apply to women?

PFEFFER: So I don't think that this is going to have an immediate or direct impact on women living outside of those communities. Israel is very much a society of bubbles. So if you're right now in Tel Aviv or any other of the majority-secular cities or neighborhoods around Israel, people are carrying on with life as usual, whether men, women and gay people and so on. Everything is very much as it was. And I don't think the government is going to try and change. It's not like we're about to undergo something that happened in Iran in 1979 and suddenly people will have to - women will have to wear much more - will have to cover up themselves and won't be able to have the kind of positions that they had in the past. I mean, that's not the situation. And I don't think the government has currently any interest in trying to impose those kind of lifestyle or way-of-life issues on the Israeli public because right now, the Israeli public still is majority nonreligious, and women are very much part of the public sphere. But I don't think you're going to see on the streets of Tel Aviv a morality police telling women what to wear or something like that.

GROSS: Do you think women's rights will be diminished in any way?

PFEFFER: I think that any chance for reform in the rabbinical courts, which currently deal with all the divorce matters in the judiciary - Israel doesn't have civil marriage, for example. The prospects for reform of any kind, any improvements there, right now seem to be very remote. And there were - and there was some kind of very limited progress on that issue in previous years. I don't think it's going to happen now. I think the fact that this government has very few women in it - we've gone from having a government where nearly 40% of the ministers were women to having a government with only four female ministers, out of 30-something. The fact that the appointments are very much less - Netanyahu doesn't have any women in the team around him, whereas Lapid and Bennett, the prime ministers in the last year and a half, most of their staff were female. I think those things will have an effect. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what wider effect that's going to have, but it does - it will certainly have an effect.

GROSS: So in a time of big change and in a move to the far right, women will have very little voice in the government and in how things go in that respect.

PFEFFER: Yeah. That does look like what's going to happen, yeah.

GROSS: So in talking about the new far-right government, the new public security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, now oversees the border police and domestic police. He leads an ultranationalist party, and he's considered very extreme. He had been on the margins, but now he's in government. What makes him extreme?

PFEFFER: So Ben-Gvir began his political journey as a teenager in a party which was then called Kach. It was founded by the American Rabbi Meir Kahane, who emigrated in the 1970s. And when Ben-Gvir was in the movement then - I think at the age of 16 or 17, he was already the head of the youth wing of the party - the party was prescribed as a terrorist organization after various terror attacks carried out by its members against Palestinians. And basically, Ben-Gvir for many years was an untouchable. He was a member of - even before the party had been outlawed, it was always on the margins, and it would never have been considered part of any coalition, not even a right-wing coalition. And on the one - in the one term in the Knesset back in the 1980s when Rabbi Kahane was a member of the Knesset, whenever he got up to speak, every single member of the Knesset left in protest, including all the Likud members.

And what Ben-Gvir has done over the years is he's worked very hard to try and bring the movement and - he obviously had to change the name and some details in its platform to make it somehow legal. He actually went to study law and became a practicing lawyer partly to do that. And now the party is called Jewish Power, but even until a couple of years ago, it was still seen as - was very much on the margins and not something which could be part of a coalition. And Netanyahu changed all that, not because to say Netanyahu has any special affinity for the views of that party, but Netanyahu needed to somehow get back into office to win a majority. Netanyahu didn't want to see any right-wing votes wasted, so he got the various small far-right parties to join together in one slate so they could run together and together cross the threshold. And that's basically how Ben-Gvir got into the Knesset.

And the moment that his party was viable, then they went to another. There are quite a few far-right people who have never voted in the past or had voted for less far-right parties, decided that they wanted to vote for him. He did very well. The party that he's part of did very well thanks to him partly in the last election. And now he's in with six members, which is not a large party, but it's necessary for Netanyahu, for his majority.

GROSS: Was it Ben-Gvir who told the police that they can take down Palestinian flags?

PFEFFER: Yeah, I mean, this is something he said because last weekend there was a big celebration in an Arab Israeli village for a Palestinian prisoner being released after 40 years. He had been sentenced for being involved in the murder of an Israeli soldier. And in that event, there were a lot of Palestinian flags, so Ben-Gvir put out this directive for the police saying that they should confiscate all Palestinian flags. Now, it's not quite clear that he has the power to do that, and there has been some pushback within the police saying this is the decision of the senior officer at the scene who can decide whether a certain flag is also constituting some kind of breach of public order, but the fact that he's making this into an issue kind of shows where his priorities are.

GROSS: I think he also wants to give immunity to Israeli soldiers who shoot Palestinians.

PFEFFER: So that's another law that he and some of his far-right partners are hoping to pass in this new Knesset. We haven't yet seen a draft of that new law or when the government is going to pass it, but it has to be said that all these kind of to-do lists of the coalition is the kind of thing that every new Israeli government publishes when it's sworn in. Not everything on that list actually gets done, but it certainly defines their intentions.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer, who's also the author of a biography of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The book is called "Bibi." We'll talk more about Israel's new far-right government after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Anshel Pfeffer about Israel's new far-right government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who returned for his sixth term by forming a coalition with ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties. These parties oppose Palestinian rights, LGBTQ rights and want to change the education system, the judicial system and even change the definition of who is a Jew to reflect their extremist views.

So with the ultranationalists and the ultra-Orthodox parties having the majority in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, now, what can Palestinians expect? What are some of the ambitions of this new government?

PFEFFER: So 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. And 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. There certainly is 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 and perhaps - and also, perhaps more crucially, to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.

GROSS: So I understand that Benjamin Netanyahu made alliance with ultra-Orthodox parties so that he could become prime minister again. He needed their votes. He needed their backing. But he's secular. So I know you can't read his mind, but I keep wondering, like, how does he feel about making this bargain with the ultra-Orthodox, who are very extremist in their views, when he himself is secular and many Israelis are secular, many Jews around the world are secular?

PFEFFER: So Netanyahu has this kind of strange disattachment (ph) from social issues. And if you ask Netanyahu about macroeconomics, if - certainly if you ask him about geopolitics, he's hugely knowledgeable. He has many views. He's very well-read on these issues. And he can - he is very much a statesman. He's someone who has - you know, engages with world leaders. And he also sees himself as an economic genius. On these matters, he has very detailed plans and views. But 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. If you ask him what your role is as prime minister, he'll always say, it's to protect Israel and deny Iran of a nuclear bomb and to improve our relations with the world.

And as far as he's interested in internal affairs, it's - I can say it's macroeconomics. At the most, he's interested in infrastructure in the sense that he wants to have faster trains going - connecting the country but nothing on social policy. And he just doesn't see that as part of his role as prime minister. And that's very convenient for him because he's - like you said, he's had this deal with the ultra-Orthodox for many years and now also with the ultra-right that - I'll give you all these social issues. Let me run the big things.

GROSS: So you describe Netanyahu as really understanding how to use the media to further his own interests and his own political career. How is his government treating the press and, you know, journalists like you who have been critical of the government?

PFEFFER: So Netanyahu is an early adopter, and he's also someone who understood very early the power of the internet and social networks. And by and large in recent years and certainly now, he's almost bypassing the press. He hasn't given any interviews in recent weeks to the Israeli media. He's basically ignoring most of the Israeli media because he's now relying on the social networks to put out his messages. And to a large degree, it's working.

GROSS: Is it harder for you to cover him now, to cover the government?

PFEFFER: Well, I'm not a political - I mean, I don't have the daily beat. I'm comment - I'm more of a commentator. So I don't actually need every given moment to have access to every official in Netanyahu's cabinet. But, yes, it is more difficult to get that kind of informed insight than it was - that you could, certainly, under the previous government. That said, this is Israel. It's a very small country. Everybody knows everyone else. And even people whose political views are very different from mine will usually talk. So it's not that difficult. But Netanyahu himself is accessible only to favorable reporters and journalists, those that he can trust.

GROSS: Netanyahu has been indicted for fraud and corruption. My understanding is one of the reasons he wanted to become prime minister was to skirt around those charges. How does becoming prime minister help keep him out of court and out of jail?

PFEFFER: Well, let's make it clear. He wants to be prime minister anyway. Netanyahu doesn't see anybody else being Israel's prime minister. He doesn't see anyone else worthy of being Israel's prime minister. He hasn't prepared or groomed any successors over the years. And even at the age of 73, after having been prime minister for over 15 years in total, he still plans to continue for the foreseeable future. At the same time, he also believes that being prime minister gives him, if not immunity, then a certain level of protection in the court. He much prefers having to fight the charges against him as serving prime minister than as an ordinary citizen.

GROSS: So how does being prime minister help him avoid trial?

PFEFFER: Well, so far, it hasn't. He was put on trial in his previous term as prime minister. He wasn't - at least in principle, he wasn't given any preferential treatment. Some would argue that actually, as prime minister, he was more of a target for the police investigations than he would have been as an ordinary citizen. But he thinks that now - and I can't predict exactly what move is going to take. But he certainly thinks that now he has more opportunities to somehow suborn or erode the power of the courts to convict him. Now, how he could do it - there are various ways that people are expecting him to take. He could replace the attorney general with a more convenient prosecutor who would say, well, we have to revisit the charges. They could pass a law giving him immunity. We're not quite sure yet what path he'll take, but he certainly feels much more comfortable fighting these charges in office.

GROSS: I've read that his allies want to write a law that would postpone a sitting prime minister from being prosecuted until he leaves office, which would give Netanyahu more time, and also that his allies in the Knesset have also pledged to remove the charges he's accused of from the penal code. Is that true?

PFEFFER: Those are both options that have been talked about. They're being talked about by his proxies. Now, whenever he's asked, he says, no, no, no. I'm not going to tamper with the case against me. The case against me will collapse anyway. It's already collapsing in court. So he's always denying that. But we're certainly hearing this from many of his proxies, saying that they want to take out, like you say, the fraud and breach of trust in public office clause from the penal code, which would basically take away three-quarters of the charges against him. Now, we don't - we can't predict at this point which of these things will happen. But now that he's prime minister and he has a majority, some of those things he can do.

GROSS: So I know it's kind of complicated, but can you give us, like, the brief bullet point version of what he's accused of?

PFEFFER: So in a very brief summary, he's accused of having had dealings with media owners in Israel in exchange for him somehow interfering in regulatory issues in their favor, having received favorable coverage from those media owners. And he's accused of having received a large amount of very expensive gifts from rich Israeli businesspeople at a level which should be considered illegal.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer. He's a correspondent and columnist for the Israeli publication Haaretz and the Israeli correspondent for the British publication The Economist. He's the author of a biography of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has started his sixth term as Israel's prime minister. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer. He's been writing about Israel's new far-right government, the result of a coalition between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties. Pfeffer is also the author of a biography of Netanyahu called "Bibi." Netanyahu's wife is involved with the charges of corruption and bribery. Is that the right word?

PFEFFER: Well, there are three charges of fraud and breach of trust and one charge of bribery.

GROSS: So what's her involvement?

PFEFFER: So they - basically, these are three criminal investigations rolled into one trial. So the - one of the investigations, which is the one dealing with the gifts, which the prosecution claims are illegal gifts that Netanyahu received while being prime minister, many of those gifts were for Mrs. Netanyahu, for Sara Netanyahu. Whether we're talking about jewelry and expensive crates of French champagne and other gifts, most of these gifts were given to her or were requested by her. Some of them were for Netanyahu himself. There were crates of - or large boxes of Cuban cigars, which were for Netanyahu. But many of the gifts were meant for Sara Netanyahu. And one of the lines of defense is already - was already emerging is that Netanyahu wasn't aware of what his wife was receiving or asking for.

GROSS: Requesting gifts, is that like a bribe?

PFEFFER: Well, they haven't been - on this case, they haven't been charged with bribery. They've been charged with fraud and breach of trust. One of the reasons they haven't been charged with bribery is that some of the witnesses for the prosecution are the ones who gave the gifts. So by making it into a bribery charge, that would make them also defendants. But, yes, you could certainly construe that as bribery. The prosecution just decided not to call that bribery for its tactical reasons.

GROSS: What is the status of the trial now?

PFEFFER: So the trial is currently at the evidentiary stage. And that means dozens and, ultimately, perhaps, hundreds of witnesses taking the stand on behalf of either side and saying what happened in those three cases, which have been rolled into one, the gifts case and two separate cases dealing with Netanyahu's relationship with media owners. And it's just going on every day in the Jerusalem district courts. And witnesses take the stand usually three days a week. And all this is happening. The prime minister - now he's again the prime minister - is on trial while he's running the country. And it's become also this bizarre thing that the media - I mean, with the Israeli media still covering it. But it's almost become part of the background music, as if we've got used to the fact that we have a prime minister who is running the country and simultaneously on trial.

GROSS: Netanyahu has had a friendly relationship with Vladimir Putin. How would you describe their relationship?

PFEFFER: Well, Putin is someone who has always tried, for a lot of historic reasons - we're not here to talk about Putin - to be close to Israel's leadership, going back to the very beginning of Putin's presidency in Russia. He courted other prime ministers as well, Sharon and Barak and Olmert and, more recently, Naftali Bennett. But with Netanyahu, he's had a special kind of rapport. I think Netanyahu feels quite close to this strongman kind of image of leaders. Netanyahu talks of himself as being someone who believes in liberal democracy. But he has a very good rapport with leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and Orban and Bolsonaro and Modi in India. It's kind of what Orban calls the illiberal Democrats. And with Putin, he - when he was prime minister in his previous term, he met with Putin on a very regular basis two or three times a year. They spoke often over the phone and Netanyahu tried to present it as him having a very special relationship with Putin. And I think that he felt that the Putin image of the strong national leader was the kind of image he wanted as well.

GROSS: So what does that mean for the war in Ukraine, for Putin's war in Ukraine?

PFEFFER: So now that Netanyahu is back, his relationship with Putin cannot be as it used to be because at the end of the day, Israel's main strategic alliance is with the United States. Now, Putin is now a pariah leader, someone that the United States is supplying weapons to beat his army. So Netanyahu can't have that kind of relationship with Putin again. And there's the other issue that for Netanyahu, Israel's biggest enemy is Iran. And Iran is now an important ally of Russia in this war. So those two things which have really changed Putin's state is creating a headache for Netanyahu because Netanyahu needs to have some kind of policy on the Ukraine issue. But I think he's going to try and play for time before actually stating his position.

Israel currently is sort of neutral in the Russia-Ukraine war because Israel's concerned that Russia has forces in Syria across the border and that Russia has a very large Jewish community which has suffered - which historically has suffered from antisemitism. So these are reasons why Israel isn't actively helping to arm Ukraine. They're helping Ukraine in other ways with humanitarian aid and sort of roundabout intelligence sharing on stuff like these Iranian drones. But in the open, Israel is kind of keeping on the sidelines, and Netanyahu at some point will have to take a position. But I think he's very reluctant to do it.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer. He's a correspondent and columnist for the Israeli publication Haaretz, and he's the Israeli correspondent for the British publication The Economist. He's the author of a biography of Benjamin Netanyahu called "Bibi." And Netanyahu has started his sixth term as Israel's prime minister. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer. He's been writing about Israel's new far-right government, the result of a coalition between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties. Pfeffer is the author of a biography of Netanyahu called "Bibi."

What is the relationship between Netanyahu and Biden? They've known each other a long time.

PFEFFER: Well, Joe Biden likes to say that he's met with every single Israeli prime minister going back to Golda Meir almost 50 years ago. So Biden has been on friendly terms with all of Israel's prime ministers. Because Bibi has been around on the scene for so long and he's known Joe Biden from the early 1980s when he was a diplomat in Washington and Biden was a relatively young senator at the time, their relationship is probably the oldest relationship that Biden has with any other world leader today. And that - Biden is somebody who does put store by personal relations. It's not the same kind of relationship that Netanyahu has back in the day with Obama, but it's also not the same relationship that he had with Donald Trump. Joe Biden, though he is, on a personal level, quite friendly with Netanyahu, he's also very clear on where he differs with him on policy issues. And since Biden is quite familiar with the Israeli political scene, he is very much aware of the nature of some of Netanyahu's new partners.

GROSS: This week, Israel's minister for strategic affairs, Ron Dermer, is in Washington for talks with some State Department officials. And next week, national security adviser Jake Sullivan is expected to go to Israel for meetings with Netanyahu and other Israeli officials. What do you glean so far about what the relations between Netanyahu and the Biden government will be, especially on, like, global issues?

PFEFFER: So I think Netanyahu knows that the administration has other priorities right now. It's got Ukraine. It's got a bigger, more long-term issue with China. It's got many domestic challenges. And I think we've already seen over the last two years that the Biden administration doesn't really want to spend much time in the Middle East and on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Joe Biden has more experience than any other U.S. president of this region from his long career. And I think it seems quite clear that he's reached a conclusion that whatever limited time and political capital he has, he doesn't really want to waste on a conflict that he's seen so many previous presidents failing to solve. And Netanyahu understands that, but he also knows that there are red lines. There are things that the Biden administration won't agree to. So massive expansions of settlements, annexation and so on are things that they won't agree with.

So I think Netanyahu is trying to find that room for maneuver between what the Biden administration may not like but won't waste too much of its time in getting involved in, which is the general situation here of the occupation and crossing those red lines of taking it - taking it up another level towards annexation.

GROSS: Do you think that a two-state solution in Israel and for the Palestinians is even conceivable anymore?

PFEFFER: Well, I know it's unfashionable to say so, but I think that is still the only viable solution, at least at this point. I mean, I think in the future, there could be other - confederation or even some kind of one-state solutions. But I think in the - any kind of solution we can contemplate now has to take into account the fact that the Israelis and Palestinians haven't gotten along very well together for the last 75 years. And probably the best thing for them is to have some kind of separation and to give the Palestinians also an opportunity for experiencing their aspiration of state. And now it's an extremely - it still is an extremely difficult solution to carry out because of the geographical constraints, because of the settlements, because the fact that the Palestinians are split between Gaza and the West Bank and because both nations see Jerusalem as their capital.

So there's a whole range of arrangements that would have to be part of it. But I still think that if we are serious about solving this - and the question is, is anybody serious about solving this right now? The problem isn't with the two states; the problem is with the solutions. Is anybody really capable of making whatever concessions on either side are necessary for a solution? I still think that is the only real solution that we can contemplate taking place. But the problem is that neither side seems to be in a place to make those concessions and sacrifices.

GROSS: Do you think that the new government and its move to the far right is a threat to the future of Israeli democracy?


GROSS: Because?

PFEFFER: Well, Israeli democracy is a very strange creature because, on the one hand, Israel has 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 the 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 got - you have all those elements of a democracy. On the other hand, you have very problematic issues with Israeli democracy. Before this government, you don't - I mentioned before 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 are - basically have their lives controlled by Israel without having political rights.

So it's a democracy in one - in many ways and a strong democracy in many ways. And in other ways, it isn't. And what Netanyahu's new government is doing is they are basically eroding those strong elements of Israeli democracy, the issues of separation of powers, the fact that the courts could intervene and say the government - what the government is doing is illegal, and therefore, the government has to stop. The way that Netanyahu has acted to erode the independence of the Israeli media - all these things are weakening those elements of Israeli democracy, which were and have been traditionally strong. And that is certainly a threat to Israeli democracy.

GROSS: Anshel Pfeffer, thank you so much for talking with us.

PFEFFER: Thank you for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Anshel Pfeffer is a commentator and columnist for the Israeli publication Haaretz and is the Israel correspondent for the British publication The Economist. He's also the author of a biography of Netanyahu called "Bibi." We recorded our interview yesterday morning.

We'll close today's show with a track featuring guitarist Jeff Beck. He died Tuesday of bacterial meningitis. He was 78. His New York Times obit described him as, quote, "one of the most skilled, admired and influential guitarists in rock history. During the 1960s and '70s, as either a member of the Yardbirds or as leader of his own bands, Beck brought a sense of adventure to his playing that helped make the recordings by those groups groundbreaking," unquote. Here's the Yardbirds' 1965 hit "Heart Full Of Soul" with Jeff Beck on guitar. I'm Terry Gross.


THE YARDBIRDS: (Singing) Sick at heart and lonely. Deep in dark despair. Thinking one thought only - where is she? Tell me where. And if she says to you she don't love me, just give her my message. Tell her of my plea. And I know that if she had me back again, I would never make her sad. I've got a heart full of soul. And I know if she had me back again, well, I would never make her sad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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