Reuters / March 24, 2023
JERUSALEM – Israel’s attorney-general on Friday accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of breaking the law by ignoring a conflict of interest over his ongoing trial for corruption and getting directly involved in his government’s judicial overhaul plan.
In the face of intensifying protests against the proposed changes, which its critics charge would weaken the Supreme Court, Netanyahu said on Thursday he was putting aside all other considerations and would do “anything it takes” to reach a solution.
The letter from Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara added to the headwinds facing the plans, which have caused a deep split in Israeli society, bringing tens of thousands of protesters to the streets, alarming the business establishment and opening cracks in the right-wing coalition itself.
Israel’s Channel 12 reported that following Netanyahu’s speech, about 200 elite reservist air force pilots said they were suspending their service on Friday due to the planned legislation, escalating protests from within the military.
After media reports that Defence Minister Yoav Gallant would call for the plans to be halted on Thursday, Netanyahu summoned his defence chief who outlined the potential impact of the overhaul on the armed forces, where growing numbers of reservists have declared they will not serve.
However Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges that he denies, has pushed ahead, declaring in a televised address on Thursday that he would try to pass a central part of the package next week.
On Thursday, the Knesset amended a law to limit the circumstances in which a prime minister can be removed from office but Baharav-Miara said Netanyahu had to stay out of the judicial overhaul package, which has been handled by Justice Minister Yariv Levin.
“The legal situation is clear: you must refrain from any involvement in initiatives to change the judiciary,” she wrote in the letter made public by the office of the justice ministry spokesperson. “Your statement last night and any action you take in violation of this matter is illegal.”
The letter followed Baharav-Miara’s earlier warnings that Netanyahu must stay out of his coalition’s push for a judicial overhaul because of what she deemed a conflict of interest arising from his trials.
In a message distributed by the ruling Likud party, an unnamed source close to Netanyahu denied the prime minister violated any laws or conflict of interest agreements in his statement and said it had no repercussions on his trial.
The source said it was incumbent on the premier to try to reach a wide consensus at a time of national crisis that carried implications for the country both domestically and abroad.
Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir accused the attorney-general, appointed by the former centre-right government, of acting as de facto head of the opposition.
“If Ms Baharav-Miara wants to make decisions on behalf of elected officials, she is welcome to form a party and run for parliament,” he wrote on Twitter.
Following the attorney-general’s letter, the watchdog group Movement for Quality Government in Israel said it would file a motion for contempt of the court and demand that Netanyahu be subjected to sanctions as stipulated by law, including heavy fines and imprisonment.
Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition has been pursuing changes to the judiciary that would give the government sway in choosing judges and limit the Supreme Court’s power to strike down laws.
Proponents say the plan would rein in Supreme Court overreach and restore balance between the branches of government. Critics say it would weaken the courts, endanger civil liberties and harm the economy.
The proposed plan has sparked weeks of nationwide demonstrations and drew concern among the country’s Western allies.
The protests followed Netanayhu to London on Friday, where he met British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Hundreds of people stood outside 10 Downing Street waving Israeli flags and banging drums. Some could be heard shouting “Netanyahu go to jail, you can’t speak for Israel”.
Broadcasters had expected to be able to film the start of the meeting between Sunak and Netanyahu but that appeared to have been cancelled.
Reporting by Henriette Chacar; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Clarence Fernandez, James Mackenzie, William Maclean