TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel’s attorney general has told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he must avoid being involved in an overhaul to the country’s judicial system proposed by his government, saying in a letter made public Thursday that he risks a conflict of interest in his ongoing corruption trial.
Netanyahu’s new far-right government has made changing the legal system a centerpiece of its legislative agenda and despite mounting public criticism, has charged ahead with steps to weaken the Supreme Court and grant politicians less judicial oversight in their policymaking.
Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving influential media moguls and wealthy associates. He denies wrongdoing.
“You must avoid as part of your role as prime minister involvement in initiatives related to the legal system,” Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara wrote to Netanyahu in the letter, which was sent Wednesday. She said that meant Netanyahu could also not direct others to advance the plan.
The letter included an opinion by Baharav-Miara’s deputy, saying the overhaul would “benefit the prime minister in terms of the administration of his trial.” It said the changes would allow the governing coalition to more easily advance legislation that could assist Netanyahu.
Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, said Baharav-Miara’s position won’t affect the plan’s progress. He said the attorney general’s position is binding, meaning Netanyahu won’t be able to deal with the legal changes, and neither will any of his political appointees on his behalf. But ministers in his government should be able to, he said.
The judicial overhaul was launched by the country’s justice minister, a close confidante of Netanyahu’s, and the Israeli leader has touted it as the right step for the country.
Asked about moves to alter the judiciary by a leader on trial in an interview with CNN this week, Netanyahu said “none of the reforms that we’re talking about…have anything to do with my trial.”
Baharav-Miara’s stance is only likely to deepen a rift in Israel over the power of the judiciary, which has roiled the country since the government took power later last year.
The plan would allow a simple majority of the country’s 120-seat parliament to overturn Supreme Court decisions that deem laws unconstitutional. It would also allow government ministers to ignore the advice of legal counselors and also make the position less independent.
Critics say the plan upends Israel’s system of checks and balances and strips minorities of the ultimate protector of their rights, the Supreme Court. They say it grants politicians too much power and would be destructive to Israel’s democratic fundamentals. The plan has faced widespread opposition, from top legal officials to economists and the country’s robust tech sector to tens of thousands of ordinary Israelis who have come out to protest the move.
The government says the plan is critical to streamlining governance and correcting an imbalance of power between the country’s executive and judicial branches, which they say has made the courts too powerful.