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News Brief: Coalition Government, Opioid Immunity, Ship's Dangerous Cargo

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Israel, a small country in the Middle East, looms so large in the region's recent history that some of its prime ministers count as significant historic figures. And that may prove true of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has endured in power for 12 years.

NOEL KING, HOST:

But Netanyahu's time now seems like it may be nearing an end. A coalition of opposition parties say they've combined to form a new government. Netanyahu has survived so many setbacks, including four elections in the past two years, that it's not certain yet that he's finished. This opposition group has to confirm its leadership by winning a vote in Israel's Knesset first. And they agree on very little except that the prime minister should not be Netanyahu.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jackie Northam is in Jerusalem. Hey there, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: I noticed this coalition had until midnight last night to announce that they had agreed on terms to work together to govern the country. And it took them until 11:22.

NORTHAM: That's right. It came right down to the wire. You know, there's been a lot of haggling over the past couple of days about how this new coalition government was going to work, who was going to get what ministry and the like. The challenge is that the coalition is just wildly diverse. You've got ultraright-wing political groups, there's centrist ones, and there's even an Islamist Muslim party. So it takes in the whole political spectrum here in Israel with stark ideological differences.

As you mentioned, the key thing that they have in common is they want to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office. They've managed to cobble together enough votes to win them a majority in Parliament. And if this coalition of eight parties can hold together, it will be led for the first couple of years by Naftali Bennett. And he's seen as more right wing than Netanyahu. After that, a centrist politician, Yair Lapid, will become prime minister for a couple of years. But, Steve, that's a long way into the future, especially for Israeli politics.

INSKEEP: Yeah, things are pretty immediate right now. There must be a fierce debate over what should happen in the next few days.

NORTHAM: Well, certainly Netanyahu has waded into the debate. He tweeted this morning that all right-wing members of Parliament must oppose what he called this dangerous left-wing government. Members of this new coalition have been all over the airwaves this morning making their case. You know, it's a really tough sell for some of them, particularly Bennett, who was an ally of Netanyahu's. There have been protesters outside his home for several days. People in Israel are split about this. My colleague Kat Lonsdorf spoke with some folks at a market here in Jerusalem this morning. And one of them, Raphael Mikeli (ph), says he's looking forward to a new coalition government.

RAPHAEL MIKELI: Yeah, I think it's a great change, and I'm really happy about it. Like, I hope they will make it. It looks like it's going to be really hard, but I'm holding my fingers crossed.

NORTHAM: But David Izraki (ph) thinks things were just fine under Netanyahu.

DAVID IZRAKI: Look, I - when something is good, I don't like to change. It was good. I would like him to stay, but it didn't work. So what are you going to do? We have to say bye-bye (laughter).

NORTHAM: So you can hear, Steve, that, you know, creating a coalition government to unseat Netanyahu is a divisive issue here in Israel.

INSKEEP: Although - how did so much of Israel's political system turn against him?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, it's 12 years in power. And that was plenty of time to make a lot of political enemies. Again, four elections in just over two years that have all ended in deadlock; you know, budgets can't get passed; the - you know, issues like the economy aren't being addressed. So it just kind of feels like the country, the government is floundering. On top of that, Netanyahu faces corruption charges, has trials underway. People are just tired of him. You know, even this latest conflict with Gaza didn't give him a boost in popularity, despite being known as Mr. Security. So, you know, his popularity has just dwindled away.

INSKEEP: Interesting days ahead. NPR's Jackie Northam, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: A federal judge is letting a bankruptcy plan for a company at the center of the opioid crisis to move forward.

KING: Yeah, the judge signed off on a plan that will let Purdue Pharma's creditors vote on a bankruptcy deal. That deal would effectively shield members of the Sackler family, who own the company, from lawsuits connected to their company's role in the opioid crisis.

INSKEEP: And let's pick up the story there with NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann. Brian, good morning.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who are the Sacklers shielded from?

MANN: Well, it's a long list. There are more than 600,000 individuals, governments and organizations who filed claims saying they've been harmed by Purdue Pharma and by addiction to OxyContin. And Steve, there was a real question here whether a bankruptcy deal could be hashed out that's concrete enough and includes enough detail to satisfy all those people and move forward. Remember, billions of dollars are in play here. Negotiations continued right up until the deadline late yesterday. But in the end, Judge Robert Drain here in New York said this plan meets the legal standards and can now move forward to final approval. And that's expected later this summer.

INSKEEP: You mentioned billions of dollars in play. Could this settlement help communities devastated by opioids?

MANN: Yeah. The way this is structured, Purdue Pharma and the company's owners, again, members of the Sackler family, they'd start paying hundreds of millions of dollars a year. As early as February, that could begin. Government officials I've been talking to say they desperately need this cash to pay for drug rehab programs, housing, foster care. Some money will also go to individuals and families who suffered personal injuries, they say, from OxyContin use. No one thinks this is going to be enough money. But yeah, they say this will help.

INSKEEP: OK. So that is the upside from the point of view of the critics of the Sackler family, that some money is going to flow. But what happens to the Sackler family?

MANN: Yeah. And this is the controversial part right here. The Sacklers say they've done nothing wrong. That's important to remember. They say they acted ethically. And they have agreed, as part of this settlement, to give up ownership of Purdue Pharma. They'll pay roughly $4.2 billion from their personal fortunes. But they're demanding something in return, even though they themselves haven't declared bankruptcy. And that's important, too. In fact, they're one of the richest families in America. This deal will give them a clean slate legally. They'll be immune to lawsuits linked to OxyContin and opioids, and so will hundreds of businesses and trusts and other entities associated with the Sacklers. This settlement really creates a firewall around the family and their remaining financial empire. And hundreds of civil suits already filed against them, against the Sacklers, would be blocked permanently.

INSKEEP: Well, normally you would have to file for bankruptcy to get that kind of protection from creditors, as the company has. But you just said the members of the Sackler family who are implicated here haven't. How can that work?

MANN: Yeah. This is a legal question getting a lot of focus and attention right now. Two dozen state attorneys general have objected to this part of the plan. They say, in effect, this is an overreach by the bankruptcy court. It would, they say, improperly limit their authority to hold the Sacklers accountable. And they say other wealthy Americans, Steve, accused of serious wrongdoing will begin to follow this precedent and, you know, use similar strategies in bankruptcy court to block lawsuits, again, without being required to actually file for bankruptcy. Some legal scholars are echoing this concern, saying this case shows the bankruptcy system is broken. Again, it is important to say, in all of this, the Sacklers maintain they did nothing wrong.

INSKEEP: Brian, thanks for the clarity of your reporting. Really appreciate it.

MANN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: We're tracking an environmental disaster off the coast of Sri Lanka.

KING: A cargo ship called the X-Press Pearl sank yesterday not far from the capital, Colombo. Crews had been trying to tow it out into deeper waters, but they failed. Now, that ship was carrying chemicals, including 25 tons of nitric acid. Some of that has leaked into the water, and plastic pellets are washing up on beaches. The government responded by banning fishing along a 50-mile stretch of the coast.

INSKEEP: Let's go to Omar Rajarathnam, who is a freelance journalist in Sri Lanka. Welcome to the program.

OMAR RAJARATHNAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are you and other people seeing on the beaches?

RAJARATHNAM: We've kind of - especially for the community that are impacted, what they have been seeing is white pebbles washing up ashore. They don't look hazardous at all, but they are hazardous material. What has also been seen across the shores, even beyond (ph) the 50-kilometer radius, is sealed white bags of these chemicals washing ashore. But unfortunately, people initially have also been trying to touch them, carry them and take them home. The police have got involved and told them that that is not something they must do and ever since have ordered that wherever we see this debris that we alert the law enforcement agencies who come in protective clothing and clear them off the site.

INSKEEP: Noel mentioned that there was an effort at least to get this ship farther out to sea, where you would hope that the ocean would dilute all of these hazardous chemicals - didn't happen. And the chemicals are washing ashore. What are the implications of that for people who make their living by fishing where you are?

RAJARATHNAM: Fishing, in fact, is the community that's going to be impacted the most from human perspective for the same (ph) addition to the marine environmental to aspects of this. So the fishing communities have been advised not to go out at sea at least for the past 14 days because, even prior to the ship fire, there was inclement weather, and they've been asked not to go. And they've already been impacted by that lack of income. And then this hit. So for them, as of now, it's also been a request or rather an order not to go out at sea. But the problem really is, also, what do you say are alternative means of income? - because this is also a community that was affected by a COVID-19 cluster late last year. And there was a lot of public fear in buying fish over disinformation that fish could - buying fish or cooking it and eating it could spread COVID-19. So for the fisher community, it's been a bit of a rough patch right from November, but this in particular because although we've not seen marine life washed up with oil covered in them. There have been few (ph) images of marine life coming up with these white pebbles stuck either in their fins or their mouth.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, is this disaster so vast that even though the ship sank well over the horizon from where you are, it's even affecting the area where you're at? Is that correct?

RAJARATHNAM: Yes. But that is also the quantity of material it was carrying. Right? I mean, we're talking about 1,486 containers is what it is reported that it carried.

INSKEEP: Omar Rajarathnam is a freelance journalist in Sri Lanka. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.