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Plan Touching Netanyahu Corruption Case Angers Israel’s Opposition

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has long denied seeking to use his power to undermine his long-running corruption trial, and rejected the notion that his government’s ongoing judicial overhaul was partly an attempt to get his case dismissed.

But on Wednesday night, some of Mr. Netanyahu’s closest allies provided a glimpse of how they could intervene in his prosecution.

Eleven lawmakers from Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing party, Likud, introduced a bill that would strip the attorney general — who has been critical of the government — of the right to oversee the prosecution of government ministers, including the prime minister.

The move sparked anger among the opposition and an Israeli public that has taken to the streets for months to protest the government’s efforts to assert more authority over the judiciary. For many in the opposition, it also validated their claims that the coalition was seeking to interfere in Mr. Netanyahu’s trial.

“I’ve said from day one that Netanyahu’s plan is to fire the attorney general, or to create a situation where she can’t operate independently,” said Gilad Kariv, an opposition lawmaker, in a phone interview. “This piece of legislation, which was only removed because it’s a very sensitive week, is part of that plan.”

Although the Likud leadership disowned the bill and its lead proponent pulled it back, its introduction by about a third of its legislators in Parliament, raised questions about the party’s intent. The party’s leaders said the detailed bill had been in the works for weeks, but said it was advanced without their blessing.

But to Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents, the bill revealed what they have long feared: that key figures in the ruling coalition have plans to disrupt his prosecution and ensure he can remain in power.

The reaction the bill received from opponents of the government underlined why there was such opposition to the enactment on Monday of legislation that reduces the Supreme Court’s ability to block government decisions — one piece of a proposed broader judicial overhaul. The opposition said that by diminishing the court’s power, the government would be freer to enact future legislation that targets gatekeepers like the attorney general.

In their proposal to dilute the attorney general’s role, the Likud lawmakers said the change was needed to prevent a conflict of interest: As well as being Israel’s top prosecutor, the attorney general must also provide legal advice to the government. That means that the same senior official can prosecute ministers in the courtroom while advising them at the cabinet table — an awkward and untenable dynamic, the lawmakers wrote.

“This is a matter of principle — it is not personal,” said Amit Halevi, one of the bill’s signatories, in a radio interview on Thursday. “The attorney general has many roles, and this may not make sense.”

But the government’s opponents say there is more to the plan than meets the eye.

The attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, who began her six-year term under the previous government, has been a rare dissenting voice against Mr. Netanyahu from within his administration. She has criticized the government’s judicial overhaul, opposed its decision to make it harder to declare Mr. Netanyahu unfit for office, and blocked the dismissal of Tel Aviv’s police chief. Several ministers have called for her to be fired altogether, not just moved from Mr. Netanyahu’s case.

If she is replaced by someone more favorable to the prime minister, legal experts say the replacement could withdraw the case entirely, reassess the evidence and effectively suspend the trial, or offer a favorable plea deal that might allow Mr. Netanyahu to remain in politics.

“They would be able to stop the criminal case or to withdraw it,” said Prof. Suzie Navot, a legal expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, a research group in Jerusalem. “They could say, ‘OK, I think that there are decisions that have been taken that were wrong. We do not have enough evidence, to my view, and we don’t need to go on with it.’”

The proposal made on Wednesday suggested transferring the prosecution to one of the attorney general’s subordinates, the state attorney. The current state attorney, Amit Eisman, is already heavily involved in the prosecution and is not expected to upend it.

But critics fear that the government could eventually fire Mr. Eisman and install a more pliant replacement, particularly after Parliament passed the law this week that limits the Supreme Court’s ability to overturn the dismissal and appointment of senior officials.

“You have to look at this specific law as part of something that is bigger,” Professor Navot said. “They want to have people that are loyal to them.”

Efforts by Mr. Netanyahu’s government to take greater control over the judiciary have sparked months of protest in Israel, and a demonstration planned for Thursday night was expected to also focus on fears that the coalition was seeking to undermine the attorney general.

Some legal experts and opposition politicians agree in theory with the idea of splitting the attorney general’s role. Gideon Saar, an opposition lawmaker and former justice minister, has made similar suggestions in the past.

“The situation in which the same person both advises the prime minister and ministers on policy matters and also orders their investigation and prosecution is illogical,” Mr. Saar said in 2021.

It is the timing and context that has spread alarm. Mr. Netanyahu has been on trial since 2020, accused of bestowing political favors on businessmen in exchange for expensive gifts, and offering regulatory benefits to media moguls in exchange for positive news coverage.

Mr. Netanyahu denies the charges and refused to resign, leading to fears that he or his allies could use their authority to undermine the trial — a perception that has shaped public reaction to the law proposed on Wednesday.

Carol Sutherland contributed reporting from Moshav Ben Ami, Israel.

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