After new law, Netanyahu vows to keep attorney general and return felon to office
In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he will not replace the country's top law enforcement official, but does expect to reappoint a convicted tax felon to a senior position in government, after passing a contentious law this week giving his government some unchecked powers over senior appointments.
It is the first time Netanyahu has publicly stated what he expects to do with the new legislation passed Monday limiting a power of the Supreme Court.
The law has sparked months of unprecedented domestic protest over concerns it will erode the democratic separation of powers.
Speculations over the future of Israeli Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, whose office is leading the charge against Netanyahu in an ongoing corruption trial, have been swirling since the prime minister's return to power in December.
Legal experts say this law could help Netanyahu fire or sideline the attorney general, and Netanyahu's party members have advanced a bill to strip her of her prosecutorial powers.
But Netanyahu claims he has no intentions of removing Baharav-Miara from her post.
"It's not even on the table and it won't happen," Netanyahu tells NPR.
Speaking with Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep, the prime minister also rejected any notion that the new law
"It's completely false. There's no connection between this judicial reform, which is very broad, and my trial," he says.
Mordechai Kremnitzer, a law expert from the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute, questioned the claim.
"I'm afraid to say that the level of trustworthiness of Netanyahu is so low in my view, that I just don't trust his word," Kremnitzer told NPR. "It's clear that despite what Netanyahu says, that the firing of the attorney general is on the table. It's clear that it has to do with the trial of Netanyahu, as well as it has to do with the wish of this government to get rid of the rule of law."
Return of a convicted felon?
The court used the "reasonability" clause in January to dismiss Aryeh Deri, a key Netanyahu ally, from his position as Israel's interior and health minister. Deri was also meant to serve as finance minister later on.
The Supreme Court found that Deri's prior conviction for tax fraud made his appointment unreasonable, and that his promise to the court to stay out of politics — which appears to have granted him leniency in his sentencing — also should preclude him from serving in Netanyahu's government.
But with this judicial check now gone, unless the Supreme Court repeals the new law, Netanyahu could appoint Deri to his cabinet position without intervention from the Supreme Court deeming it unreasonable. And he's considering doing just that.
When asked directly if he will reappoint Deri, Netanyahu responded: "Well, you know, it depends what happens, of course, with the legislation, we have to see. But if it stands, I expect it to happen."
On Wednesday, Israel's Supreme Court announced it will hear legal challenges to the new law amid intense public protest.
Netanyahu denies national security concerns
President Biden had urged Netanyahu not to pass the legislation this week considering Israeli security threats. Thousands of Israeli reservists have announced they will not serve in protest of the law.
In the NPR interview, Netanyahu denied that the legislation impacted Israel's national security, despite public concerns from defense officials. Israeli officials have reportedly been holding meetings to evaluate at what point Israel's readiness for battle will be adversely affected.
"I don't think it's affecting our national defense, Israel is very strong," Netanyahu said. "There's no real, I would say, no real detraction or reduction in our ability to, to meet our security challenges."
That appears to contradict statements from Israel's military. In a public statement, military spokesman Daniel Hagari said requests by reservists not to serve have increased, and "if reservists do not show up for reserve duty in the long term, there will be damage to the military's readiness."
Army chief of staff Herzi Halevi said in a video, "When a dispute spills over into the ranks of the IDF, and cracks begin to emerge...These are dangerous cracks."
The following interview excerpts have been edited for clarity.
On how to proceed with his government's plan to overhaul the judiciary:
Now that we've passed [the first law] and we have the votes to to continue legislating, maybe now we'll be able to get some buy in from the opposition, and I'm prepared to do that. I think we should just sit down. We have about three months, four months. We should just sit down, work out the entire judicial reform, find a happy middle.
On why judicial reform is needed:
People agree that the balance between the three branches of government has been taken off the rails in the last 20 years, and people want to bring it back. What does it mean bring it back? It means that that neither one of the three branches of government has that overwhelming dominance over the other three. That assures democracy. ... [Over] the last 20 years, the Supreme Court has aggregated for itself the powers of the judiciary, executive branch and the legislative.
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