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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The 31 leaders of NATO member countries are meeting in Lithuania today.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

And pretty soon there will be 32 of them. In a deal brokered with Turkey just before this summit got rolling, Sweden will be allowed to join the transatlantic military alliance.

MARTIN: White House correspondent Asma Khalid is with us now from Lithuania's capital, Vilnius. Asma, good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So yesterday you were reminding us about why Turkey has been blocking Sweden's admission for more than a year. Turkey had these complaints that Sweden was not doing enough to clamp down on groups that it views as terrorists. So what broke the logjam here?

KHALID: Well, last night, NATO secretary-general met with the president of Turkey and the prime minister of Sweden. And here he is, Jens Stoltenberg.

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JENS STOLTENBERG: This is good for all of us. This is good for Sweden. Sweden will become a full member of the alliance. It's good for Turkey because Turkey is a NATO ally that will benefit from a stronger NATO. And then, of course, it's good for the whole alliance.

KHALID: And Michel, really, you know, as part of this deal, Sweden agreed to a series of steps to cooperate with Turkey on counterterrorism issues. NATO also said it would create a new coordinator for counterterrorism. And notably, Sweden also agreed to reinvigorate Turkey's efforts to join the European Union. Turkey's president, in return, agreed to lift his opposition to Sweden joining NATO. And this comes as NATO is really trying to show that it's fully united in the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. You know, it's worth remembering that it was, in fact, that very invasion that was the catalyst for Sweden, which had long been traditionally unaligned, deciding that it, in fact, wanted to join the NATO alliance.

MARTIN: Did the U.S. play any role in getting this deal done?

KHALID: Well, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters this morning that the United States had significant recent engagement in bringing this deal about. Biden and the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, spoke for some 45 minutes on Sunday as Biden flew across the Atlantic Ocean. And the two men are scheduled to talk more in person later today in Lithuania. In a statement last night, Biden said he welcomed the deal and stands ready to work with Erdogan on enhancing defense and deterrence. Experts I spoke with last week said that Erdogan was trying to use this Sweden membership issue as leverage to get a deal on F-16 fighter jets from the U.S. That appears to be in the works, though it's not a done deal yet. The White House has been consulting with Congress, which ultimately would need to approve the deal.

MARTIN: So let's go back to the question of Ukraine. Ukraine, of course, has been trying to join NATO since, like, 2008. And President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is actually attending this summit and said he wants a clear signal that his country is on the path to membership. So what can you tell us about that?

KHALID: Well, the White House has been clear. It does not think Ukraine is ready to join NATO now, that bringing Ukraine into NATO at this moment would then bring NATO into war with Russia. Here's national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

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JAKE SULLIVAN: The question is not Ukraine and NATO now, here at Vilnius. The question is what's the pathway towards Ukraine's future membership?

KHALID: And on that question, Michel, he does think the allies can come to some agreement. I will say, though, a big unanswered question is what exactly it means to be at war with Russia, because in addition to the current invasion, there's the issue that Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine about a decade ago. And the White House has not been clear on how that issue - that would possibly affect Ukraine's bid to join NATO. Biden is slated to meet with Ukraine's president here tomorrow in Lithuania, so we'll see how that goes.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Asma Khalid in Vilnius, Lithuania. Asma, thanks so much for your reporting here.

KHALID: My pleasure. Good to speak with you.

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MARTIN: Israel's controversial judicial overhaul plans are back.

MARTÍNEZ: And so are anti-government street protests.

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MARTÍNEZ: If all this sounds like deja vu, it is. Earlier this year, street protests forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze his plans to weaken the powers of Israel's judiciary. But now those plans are at deep freeze. Last night, Netanyahu's far-right coalition gave preliminary approval in parliament to one part of that plan.

MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin is actually at a protest in Tel Aviv now, and he's with us from there. Daniel, hello.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Describe the scene for us.

ESTRIN: This is a reenergized, nationwide, nonviolent protest movement that we're seeing now. Protesters are blocking major highways throughout the country. Police has dispersed protesters with a water cannon in one place. I'm at a main downtown intersection in Tel Aviv. I saw police on horseback charging into hundreds of protesters in the street. I met one protester who had her foot trampled on by a police horse, Mor Dinar. And I asked her what she was doing here.

MOR DINAR: Trying to protect our country from dictatorship because we believe in democracy, and we need the help of the U.S. to protect us and not give all the - all Netanyahu and his friends to overcome and control our country in unlivable ways.

ESTRIN: Now, this focus on the U.S. is actually a new tactic among the protesters. There is a big protest planned today outside a U.S. embassy building in Tel Aviv, and the idea is to keep the pressure on the Biden administration. President Biden has not invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to the White House yet. That is highly unusual. Biden told CNN recently that Netanyahu's cabinet includes some of the most extreme members. The U.S. ambassador to Israel told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published yesterday that he warned Israel against going off the rails, which - with this judicial overhaul.

MARTIN: So, Daniel, could you just remind us of what Netanyahu and his supporters are trying to do and why people are so outraged about it?

ESTRIN: Well, this is Israel's most right-wing government in history. It thinks the judiciary in the country is just too liberal, and it wants to limit the judiciary's powers. Now, protesters say this is actually a threat to Israel's democratic separation of powers. Now, Netanyahu actually paused this overhaul plan because of massive protests earlier this year, and there were talks with the opposition, but those talks have now failed, and so Netanyahu is rebooting his plan. And last night, parliament gave initial approval to a major change in how courts rule. This change would block the court from intervening in appointments and decisions of elected officials when the court believes that they are unreasonable. Legal experts are saying that if this bill actually passes, it will remove an important check on power in Israel.

MARTIN: So just can you just tell us briefly where Israel is heading with all of this?

ESTRIN: Well, Israel's coalition wants to pass this law by the end of the month. That could lead to harsh crackdowns on the anti-government protesters in the streets. Israel's central bank governor says that all the uncertainty around the judicial overhaul is hurting the economy bad. It's weakened Israel's currency by almost 10% since the beginning of the year. Food and gas prices are rising. And the problem for Netanyahu is that he cannot remain in power without the support of his far-right partners. The far right was demanding a major military offensive in the West Bank, and they saw that last week. So now the right is demanding these changes to the courts. And the question is, can this reenergized protest movement actually force Netanyahu to back off?

MARTIN: That is NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Daniel, thank you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: New England and parts of New York are drenched after heavy rains and flash flooding. At least one person has died.

MARTÍNEZ: And Vermont is one of the hardest-hit states. Rivers there threaten to overflow their banks, flooding towns, closing roads and forcing evacuations. In some parts of the state, trapped drivers had to swim out of their floating, swirling cars. And President Biden issued an emergency declaration to release federal aid.

MARTIN: Vermont Public's Liam Elder-Connors is with us now with an update on the latest. Good morning.

LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So I understand that you're in Burlington, which is in the northwestern part of the state. What's the situation there?

ELDER-CONNORS: Well, it's still raining, and parts of the state are still under a flood warning this morning. There have been evacuations across the state. Nearly a dozen emergency shelters were set up yesterday. And as of last night, there were more than 50 water rescues made by emergency crews. And a big concern is that things are potentially going to get worse. Several major rivers were expected to crest overnight and early this morning, and officials are monitoring several dams that might overflow, including one near Vermont's capital, Montpelier.

MARTIN: So how unusual is this amount of rain? And you've been giving us a sense of this, but how destructive has it been so far?

ELDER-CONNORS: Well, we've seen lots of road closures. Flooding has been bad in downtown Montpelier especially. And the last time we saw anything similar to this was more than a decade ago. Tropical Storm Irene brought 11 inches of rain in 24 hours. Now, we're still waiting for the totals of this storm, but this storm's been lingering, which concerns safety officials. I talked to Moretown fire Chief Stefan Pratt, and he told me he's worried about these conditions.

STEFAN PRATT: It looks like it's going to stay at that crest mark in major flooding for approximately 12 hours. Whereas Irene - it came up, and then it went back down. We're going to be at, you know, 12 hours of it staying high, which is, you know, very dangerous.

ELDER-CONNORS: So I visited Moretown yesterday afternoon. That's a small town in central Vermont of just over 1,700 people. And like many small towns in Vermont, a river runs through it. In fact, there's a river that runs along the winding road that leads to that town, which is also pretty common in Vermont. And while I was driving there, water was lapping along the banks. And in Moretown, they were preparing to evacuate about 30 homes if the river rose, and the water was rising pretty fast. While I was out reporting, in about an hour or so on my drive home, one of the roads that I had passed by closed down due to the river flooding over its banks. So the conditions have been changing pretty quickly.

MARTIN: Wow. So that's a lot to manage. So before we let you go, Liam, what's the forecast for the next couple of days?

ELDER-CONNORS: Well, the rain is expected to end today, though there is a potential for more rain later in the week, which has forecasters concerned about more localized flash flooding. In addition to Vermont, though, the storm's hit other New England states like Massachusetts and Connecticut. Like we mentioned earlier, New York's been hit pretty bad in the northern part of the state with widespread flooding in the Mid-Hudson and Finger Lake regions. Officials in Vermont are hoping things are going to dry out over the next couple of days so we can assess the damage. And then, of course, the cleanup will begin.

MARTIN: That's Vermont Public reporter Liam Elder-Connors. Liam, thank you so much for this reporting.

ELDER-CONNORS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.