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Defiant Netanyahu Defends Judicial Overhaul in Israel

Just days after his coalition passed the first stage of a judicial overhaul plan that has divided the country, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel struck a defiant tone, saying he hoped to reinstate a key ally convicted of a felony and declining to say if he would respect a Supreme Court ruling on the plan if it did not go his way.

In a flurry of interviews with U.S. broadcasters on Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu sought to play down concerns about the law passed Monday, which reduces the influence of the Supreme Court, calling it “a minor correction” of the judiciary.

“We don’t want a subservient court, we want an independent court — but not an all-powerful court. Those are the corrections that we’re doing,” Mr. Netanyahu told Wolf Blitzer on CNN.

But he also made clear that he would not be backing down in the face of a wave of criticism he has faced over the judicial plans, which many in Israel see as undermining the country’s democracy. He said he expected to bring Aryeh Deri, an ally whom the Supreme Court had barred from serving as a minister because of his conviction for tax fraud, into his cabinet.

“It depends what happens, of course, with the legislation. We have to see. But if it stands, I expect it to happen,” Mr. Netanyahu told National Public Radio, referring to the potential reappointment of Mr. Deri, the leader of the Shas party.

Mr. Netanyahu also declined to say whether his government would obey the Supreme Court should it strike down the legislation reining in its authority. The Supreme Court will hear petitions against the law in September, setting the stage for a serious clash between Mr. Netanyahu’s government and the justices.

“We’ll be in uncharted territory, and I would really like to believe they won’t do that,” Mr. Netanyahu said on CNN, about the possibility of the court striking down the law.

“What you’re talking about is a situation, or potential situation, where in American terms, the United States Supreme Court would take a constitutional amendment and say that it’s unconstitutional,” Mr. Netanyahu added. “That’s the kind of spiral that you’re talking about, and I hope we don’t get to that.”

Demonstrators protesting the government’s judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on Monday.Credit…Oded Balilty/Associated Press

On Monday, Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition passed a law that stops the court from overruling government decisions that it finds lacking in “reasonableness.” That doctrine was one of the standards the justices used to rule that the government’s appointment of Mr. Deri as a minister was “unreasonable” because of his fraud conviction.

The government argues that the doctrine gives unelected judges too much leeway to overrule elected lawmakers. Critics call it an important tool for preventing corruption and abuse of executive power.

Mr. Netanyahu’s media blitz with the American broadcasters — he also spoke with ABC — came amid mounting international concern over Israel’s domestic turmoil. The hard-line coalition’s judicial overhaul has split the country, prompted hundreds of thousands to protest for weeks on end, and cast a painful light on Israel’s widening divisions.

Apparently with the international scrutiny in mind, the prime minister pushed back on allegations that his government planned to fire Israel’s attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, who has frequently clashed with Mr. Netanyahu and his allies. Critics had warned that canceling the “reasonableness” objection to government decision-making could pave the way for Ms. Baharav-Miara’s dismissal.

As the country’s top prosecutor, Ms. Baharav-Miara oversees Mr. Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial, in which he has denied any wrongdoing. Senior members of Mr. Netanyahu’s party, as well as the country’s far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, have called for her to be fired.

“This is not going to happen, because it needs the heads of all the coalition to agree to it — and they’re not going to agree to it,” Mr. Netanyahu told CNN. “It’s not happening.”

But Mr. Netanyahu did not address the question of whether the coalition would seek to have authority over his corruption trial transferred from Ms. Baharav-Miara to another official. Some members of the prime minister’s party said this week that they planned to pursue such a transfer, before backing down.

Supporters of the judicial overhaul, like Mr. Netanyahu, say Israeli courts have accrued too much power over the past few decades and interfered too widely in government policies. Critics say the right-wing government aims to end the judiciary’s independence, get rid of the country’s main check on government power and push Israel toward authoritarianism.

The passage of the judicial measure on Monday triggered widespread unrest and warnings from banks and Moody’s, the ratings agency, about potential damage to the Israeli economy. And it prompted scores of reservists — a critical part of Israel’s military forces — to resign from duty in protest.

Michael Koplow, an expert at the Washington-based Israel Policy Forum think tank, said Mr. Netanyahu was speaking with the U.S. media to soothe rising anxiety among international investors, in Congress and in the American Jewish community.

“But it’s hard for him to dismiss that, given that people in the United States have watched Israelis demonstrating in the streets for six straight months, on top of the warnings from the security establishment and Israeli economists,” Mr. Koplow said. “He still has a mind-set that he can speak perfect English and people will buy whatever it is that he’s selling.”

The judicial plan has also strained Israel’s ties with the United States, its most important ally. President Biden has repeatedly and publicly warned Mr. Netanyahu not to advance the wide-ranging changes without having achieved a consensus among the Israeli public. But despite widespread street protests, Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition went ahead with them anyway, with even more sweeping proposals down the road.

On Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu called Mr. Biden a “great friend of Israel.” But he said Israel would ultimately reach its own decisions, adding that he had not commented on other countries’ internal debates over the limits of executive power.

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