ILYA MARRITZ From WNYC in New York, This is On The Media. I'm Ilya Marritz, in for Brooke Gladstone. When I hosted the show about six months ago, we asked this big question about how countries around the world deal with leaders who may have committed crimes. Since then, there's been movement.
TAPE We have major breaking news, indeed, historic breaking news right now.
TAPE A grand jury here in New York City has just handed up an indictment against former President Donald Trump, making him the first former president in U.S. history to face criminal charges. This, of course, is unprecedented.
ILYA MARRITZ No doubt a spectacle awaits us. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world
TAPE The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin, in connection with war crimes.
ILYA MARRITZ Boris Johnson was questioned in the U.K. House of Commons about the scandal they call party gate.
TAPE It is about the truth. And that is why this inquiry goes to the heart of the trust on which our system of accountability depends.
ILYA MARRITZ Someone else whose alleged criminality we discussed back in September was the then former now current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is still on trial for corruption. He was reelected last November and proposed an overhaul to the judicial system. Critics said it would end the independence of Israel's Supreme Court and limit the power of judges. And the country flipped out.
TAPE A political crisis and now a potential security crisis on the streets of Israel as the country was brought to a standstill by the largest general strike in Israeli history.
ILYA MARRITZ Yael Freidson is legal correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Welcome back to the show.
YAEL FREIDSON Thanks for having me again, Ilya.
ILYA MARRITZ So when we last spoke six months ago, you had been sitting in on Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial. He was at the time a former prime minister. And your big concern was that if Netanyahu won the next election, he would fire his own prosecutor, Israel's attorney general, and do pretty significant harm to the justice system by trying to save his own neck. Netanyahu did become prime minister again. How do the rest of your prediction turn out?
YAEL FREIDSON I expected him to try to influence his trial, but I thought it would be to fire the attorney general. I didn't expect him to go in this wide spread reform that would influence the whole judicial system in Israel.
ILYA MARRITZ You're a reporter. You go into courtrooms. You go on to the streets. What has your last week been like and felt like? Where have you actually physically been for most of the past week?
YAEL FREIDSON I covered Jerusalem. So any protest that is going on in Jerusalem, I'm the one who's covering it. I think the most dramatic date was at the night where Netanyahu announced his firing. The minister of defense, Yoav Galant, who declared that he won't vote in favor of a judicial overhaul. It was around 9:00 at night when it was on the news and for, I would say, 15, 20 minutes. You just literally could feel the shock in the air. And I started to get messages on WhatsApp groups in Israel. WhatsApp is one of the major applications that almost everyone has. That's the way to get to the most Israelis. So I started receiving messages of people just saying, okay, we're meeting out side of Netanyahu's home. Just come there. And in the beginning, they were, I don't know, 300, 400 people. And in such a short time, there were thousands of people surrounding Netanyahu's personal residence. These are nonviolent protesters. But just the fact that they were able to come so close was surprising, I think, to both sides. They didn't expect to come that close and the police didn't expect them to come that near.
ILYA MARRITZ Is it preexisting groups that are kind of organizing the protests? Is it like more kind of like new ad hoc coalitions? What does the organization of the protests tell us about who's getting involved and what they're trying to do?
YAEL FREIDSON So going back two months. Every Saturday night, there are huge protests all around Israel, especially in Tel Aviv. And in the beginning, it started from mostly left wing organizations. But slowly there were more and more professional kind of gatherings. One of the major groups is the high tech protesters that decided they had it. And this was very surprising because at least in Israel, most of the high tech companies and their employees are very well-off. And you don't see them being really active about any kind of political issue. You know, usually being political about something isn't good for your business. But also, you could see organizations of doctors, of psychologists, of social workers. And another key group that actually influenced the week's events are reservists and military pilots. They declare that they won't come to service if these laws passed.
ILYA MARRITZ It's a big deal when the military speaks in a political way.
YAEL FREIDSON This is one of the aspects of this reform, because threats of being sued in the Hague court is an issue because of the occupation. And so far, because of the good reputation of the judicial court as being independent. If any soldier had done some kind of crime, it will be investigated. And if he's found guilty, who would be also prosecuted? And many soldiers are afraid that if this judicial overhaul would pass, they personally would be under threat of the international law. So this is one of the motives for them to threaten that they won't be part of the army. They would resign if it will pass.
ILYA MARRITZ So tell me where we are today. A lot has happened this week, including Prime Minister Netanyahu saying he's going to pause plans. I know there have been enormous strikes, enormous protests. Is all of that off? What happens now?
YAEL FREIDSON Netanyahu did announce somewhat of a pause on some of these laws and negotiations have started. President Itzhak Herzog's moderating these negotiations and some of the protests did stop. It's not as extreme as it was, but the protesters against this judicial overhaul are very concerned of repeating what happened in Poland in 2017.
ILYA MARRITZ Remind us what happened in Poland in 2017.
YAEL FREIDSON The government wanted to influence the way that they appoint judges and there were widespread all around the country protests. And after a while, the government announced that they're backing off. They're also going to do some kind of negotiations. And 2019, slowly, they started to pass different laws that brought them to the same point, and they switched their judges and replaced them with more political judges. And you see the change towards abortions. And many people would say that Poland is not a democracy anymore. So many of the Israelis are afraid something similar will happen here, that holding back the protests would let the government just change tactics and make the public sort of go back to sleep.
ILYA MARRITZ It seems like a lot of Israelis really thought that this could be the end of democracy. So why do they see it that way?
YAEL FREIDSON First of all, it has to do with the fact that in Israel we have no constitution. There's only one parliament house. We don't have Congress and a Senate. So besides the Supreme Court, there isn't any other institute that could block a powerful government to do whatever they want.
ILYA MARRITZ To me, it seems crazy that a country that was founded in the 20th century doesn't have a written constitution.
YAEL FREIDSON So one of the reasons that they couldn't agree in the past on a constitution is because the ultra-Orthodox parties wouldn't accept equal rights for everyone because their communities are segregated. Men and women are separated in the educational system, public transportation, in workplaces. In Israel, it is mandatory to be drafted to the army. Everyone except of the ultra-Orthodox. There was a draft bill that was supposed to force ultra-Orthodox men to be drafted to the Army, and that led to elections at least two times in the last four years. So this is one of the most major issues in Israeli politics today.
ILYA MARRITZ You're saying that a lot of Israelis do want to have a written constitution. So what could that conversation do to politics in Israel if this idea really catches on?
YAEL FREIDSON Even now, this whole protest and campaign is very cautious about their image and are trying to portray themselves that this is not just a left wing struggles. There is also right wing voters and they're also cautious about referring to the Palestinians. And that's also one of the reasons that. Palestinians are not part of this campaign and this protest. In a way, they're looking at this as this is an internal Jewish conflict because we anyway don't have our equal rights. We, anyway aren't part of this democracy. I would say that there is, again, a very small group of protesters that they are talking about the occupation. They are reminding that when we're talking about democracy, we're talking about democratic rights for everyone who lives from the Jordan River to the sea.
ILYA MARRITZ You know, I cover Trump legal stuff for NPR, and I've spent a lot of the past two weeks kind of on indictment watch here in New York. And, you know, the last time we spoke, I think you said that a plea deal probably would have been a good thing for Israel because it would have just resolved this process, even if it were resolved imperfectly. Do you still feel that way? Do you have new lessons for America?
YAEL FREIDSON Yeah, I think that a plea deal would save us all from a judicial overhaul. Some people would say even, you know, maybe they shouldn't have even indicted him. The police shouldn't even open an investigation just in order not to get to the same situation where we are now, where we have a prime minister that you can't trust his decisions for the sake of the nation and not for his own personal sake. And that's very scary.
ILYA MARRITZ Where am I reaching you? Where are you today?
YAEL FREIDSON Well, I'm just about to enter an indie music festival and in the car.
ILYA MARRITZ So life as usual goes on to some extent in Israel.
YAEL FREIDSON Yeah. And I mean, we're a few days before Passover, which is one of the Jewish major holidays. This whole judicial overhaul is creating lots of personal conflicts, family conflicts, people who are in two sides. People are actually a bit nervous about the upcoming holidays, like how is everyone going to sit around a table and have family meal without ending up yelling at each other?
ILYA MARRITZ Yeah. Thank you.
YAEL FREIDSON Thank you.
ILYA MARRITZ Yael Freidson is the legal correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Coming up, Israel's campaign to stifle free speech inside the United States. This is On The Media.
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