Israel’s attorney-general has ordered prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to get involved in a controversial overhaul of the country’s judiciary due to a conflict of interest stemming from the veteran leader’s ongoing corruption trial.
Since taking power in December, Netanyahu’s coalition with ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist parties, widely regarded as the most rightwing in Israel’s history, has made curbing the power of the judiciary a priority.
However, in a letter to Netanyahu, Gali Baharav-Miara said the PM should “avoid intervening in initiatives regarding changes in the judicial system” because there was a “reasonable concern” that his trial would pose a conflict of interest.
Netanyahu has been on trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust since May 2020. He has denied any wrongdoing and dismissed the charges as a politically motivated witch-hunt.
His office said the attorney-general’s position was “unacceptable” and requested two weeks to provide a full answer. Israel’s justice minister Yariv Levin said Baharav-Miara, who was appointed by the previous government, was seeking to prevent Netanyahu from expressing his views.
The clash comes amid a furious row over the Netanyahu government’s plans to overhaul Israel’s judiciary, which have sparked censure from numerous serving and former judicial officials, economists and two former heads of Israel’s central bank. It has also brought tens of thousands of Israelis on to the streets in protest.
Proponents argue that the changes — which will give the government and its allies control over the appointment of judges and allow a simple majority in parliament to override decisions by Israel’s top court striking down laws — are necessary to rein in an overly activist judiciary that has used powers it was never formally granted to push a leftwing agenda.
However, critics see the proposals as a politically motivated power grab that will eviscerate checks and balances on government actions, endanger minority protections and could make Israel a less attractive place to invest.
Baharav-Miara echoed many of these concerns in a blistering legal opinion issued later on Thursday, warning that the proposals would “fundamentally change the democratic nature of the state’s governance”.
“Every one of the proposed arrangements raises fundamental concerns regarding the principle of the separation of powers, judicial independence and the professionalism of the judicial branch, and the protection of individual rights, the rule of law and good governance,” she wrote. “Unchecked governmental power is a guaranteed recipe for abusing human rights and good governance.”
Baharav-Miara added that the damage to judicial independence caused by the proposed reforms would be exacerbated by the fact that Israel’s top court is one of the few checks and balances on the country’s governments.
Under the Israeli system, most laws can be passed or amended with a simple majority in parliament, and there is no bill of rights. There is also no second chamber that can block or review legislation, and the president has no power to veto legislation.
Netanyahu has sought to parry concerns about the economic impact of the proposed overhaul, arguing that it would reduce “superfluous” litigation, and touting a recent sale of government bonds as proof that investors still trusted Israel.