Israel’s attorney general has told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that his personal involvement in plans to overhaul the country’s judiciary is illegal.
“The legal situation is clear: you must refrain from any involvement in initiatives to change the judiciary, including the makeup of the committee for the appointment of judges, as such activity is a conflict of interest,” Gali Baharav-Miara said in a letter on Friday.
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“Your statement last night and any action you take in violation of this matter is illegal and tainted by a conflict of interest,” she added, referring to a speech made by Netanyahu, in which he said he was putting aside all other considerations and would do “anything it takes” to reach a solution, after weeks of protests against the plans.
Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges that he denies, said his hands had been tied but a law amended on Thursday to limit the circumstances in which a prime minister can be removed gave him more space for manoeuvre.
Netanyahu had already summoned his defence chief on Thursday after reports the minister wanted to halt the far-right government’s judicial overhaul plans as cracks opened in the ruling coalition over the bitterly disputed project.
A planned statement by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, who Israeli media said wanted to call for a stop to the plans in the name of maintaining order in military ranks, was shelved after he was summoned by the prime minister’s office.
Netanyahu showed no sign of relenting as he delivered a televised address, promising to rein in the judiciary. While he said he wanted to find a compromise with the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who for months have taken to the streets over the plans, Netanyahu did not offer specifics for resolving their differences.
The apparent readiness of Gallant, a senior member of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, to break rank drew criticism from Jewish Power, one of the most extreme parties in Netanyahu’s coalition.
Gallant, it said, “removed himself from the rightist camp”.
Gallant has previously voiced worries about a wave of Israelis who have pledged not to heed call-ups for military reserve duty if the reforms proceed, saying the phenomenon could weaken war readiness and national cohesion.
He reiterated this in a briefing to Netanyahu on Thursday after being summoned by the premier, the defence ministry said.
The judicial overhaul has stirred concern for Israel’s democratic health abroad, too. Senior officials in the finance ministry warned this week of an economic backlash. A shaken shekel rallied on the reports of dissent by Gallant.
Netanyahu: ‘Enough is enough’
“Enough is enough”, Netanyahu said in the statement that acknowledged the concerns of both sides of the constitutional feud.
“I’m putting aside all other considerations and for the sake of our nation will do anything it takes to reach a solution.”
He sounded set on pursuing what he called “responsible judicial reform”, including a bill due for ratification next week that would curb some Supreme Court powers and tighten political control over the appointment of judges.
But he also offered reassurances that individual rights would be safeguarded by law. A proposal to enable parliament to override some Supreme Court rulings by a slim majority among lawmakers “won’t happen”, Netanyahu said without elaborating.
Protesters again took to the streets on Thursday.
Police trying to clear a highway used water cannon and carried some protesters away. Protesters heckled a cabinet minister and unfurled a massive replica of the country’s Declaration of Independence on a wall of Jerusalem’s Old City.
“We are fighting for our lives as a Jewish people together in the state that we have been building for 75 years,” said Avidan Friedman, who wore a Jewish prayer shawl over his head.
“We are fighting because we feel like what’s going on now is tearing us apart and we are calling on the government to stop.”
Critics fear that Netanyahu seeks to subordinate the judiciary to the legislature and executive. However, he insists the overhaul aims to balance out the branches of government.
Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid dismissed the premier’s remarks as “lies” and seized on the apparent rift within Likud.
“I call on responsible people in Likud: Stop the attempt to turn us into a non-democratic country. Listen to the hundreds of patriotic loyalists who have taken to the streets,” he tweeted.