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Israel's attorney-general tells Netanyahu to stay out of push for judicial changes

By Maayan Lubell

[1/3] A protestor holds a torch during a demonstration against proposed judicial reforms by Israel's new right-wing government, in Tel Aviv, Israel January 28, 2023. REUTERS/Corinna Kern/File Photo

JERUSALEM, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must stay out of his cabinet's push to overhaul the judicial system, a plan that could give the government "unlimited power", Israel's attorney-general said on Thursday, adding friction to a bitter row over the proposals.

In an official legal advisory to Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Gali Baharav-Miara said the planned changes would harm the country's democratic checks and balances, and risked giving government unbridled power that would be "a sure recipe for harming human rights and clean governance".

The plans to strengthen political control over appointments of judges, including the Supreme Court, while weakening that body's ability to overturn legislation or rule against the government have brought tens of thousands of Israelis onto the streets in nationwide protests.

Critics say the proposed changes will politicise the judiciary and compromise its independence, foster corruption and harm Israel's legal protection abroad and its economy.

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In a separate statement earlier, Baharav-Miara said Netanyahu was prohibited from involvement in the proposals, because of a conflict of interest posed by his ongoing corruption trial, in which he has denied wrongdoing.

Netanyahu had no immediate comment. Levin accused the attorney-general of trying to silence the prime minister.

Coalition lawmaker Simcha Rothman said the judicial overhaul has nothing to do with the criminal case against Netanyahu and Baharav-Miara's instruction would have no impact on its advancement.

Rothman, who heads the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, was briefing diplomats and journalists at the Jerusalem Center For Public Affairs.

Baharav-Miara was appointed under the previous government, which had ousted Netanyahu in 2021.

Now in his sixth term astride a hard-right coalition, Netanyahu argues the judiciary has overstepped its bounds in recent years, with his allies describing the Supreme Court as elitist and leftist.

Apparently seeking to assuage fears that investors will leave Israel if the changes become law, Netanyahu has defended the plan, saying it will help cut back unnecessary litigation.

S&P Global Ratings director Maxim Rybnikov has told Reuters the judicial shake-up could pressure Israel's sovereign credit rating and dozens of economists have urged Netanyahu to scrap the plan.

Israeli environmental groups joined the groups objecting to the proposals on Thursday, saying they rely on the courts to wage battles against threats to nature and public health.

Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Dan Williams and Emily Rose; Editing by Edwina Gibbs, Frank Jack Daniel, Frances Kerry and Andrew Heavens