TEL AVIV, Israel — Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is returning to office, from where he can try to eliminate years of legal problems with new legislation developed by his far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies. Critics say such a legal crusade is an attack on Israel’s democracy.
Netanyahu, 73, who is on trial for corruption, is likely to be buoyed by a loyal and comfortable government majority that could provide him with a lifeline of conviction.
Advocates for the judiciary say the proposed changes would allow lawmakers to abuse their power and disrupt the balance of power that keeps them in check.
“It leads to a situation where our entire democracy depends on elections, but once elected, you can do whatever you want,” said Amir Fuchs, senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank in Jerusalem. “This is not a normal situation in any democracy.”
For years, Israel’s right-wing has sought to change the justice system, portraying it as an interventionist and left-wing roadblock in its legislative agenda. The composition of the expected coalition now paves the way for such changes.
Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three scandals involving wealthy associates and influential media moguls. He denies wrongdoing and portrays himself as the victim of a witch hunt by law enforcement and the judiciary.
Netanyahu’s political rivals say the allegations of allegedly politicized prosecutors and judges are part of a campaign to undermine and ultimately weaken public faith in the legal system.
Netanyahu claimed that the proposed legal changes would not affect the outcome of the trial. During the trial, he is bound by a conflict of interest agreement that limits his contacts with the judiciary, although it is unclear whether this will be enforced.
Here’s a look at the legal maneuvers that could help Netanyahu:
THE REVIEW CLAUSE
The most controversial change would target Israel’s Supreme Court, which critics say is a direct blow to Israel’s democracy.
Netanyahu’s partners say the Supreme Court too often acts to throw out right-wing laws. They say that voters elect their legislators to make laws, and if the Supreme Court challenges those laws, it violates the people’s choice.
Israel does not have a constitution, instead relying on a set of “fundamental laws” that set out rights and freedoms. It is the duty of the courts to check whether the legislation complies with these laws. The Supreme Court is the last resort for minorities and other groups who challenge laws they believe are discriminatory.
The override clause, expected to be among the coalition’s first moves, would allow the government to treat some Supreme Court decisions as non-binding. The proposal, which is still under discussion, allows the coalition to override decisions with any majority, giving the ruling bloc overwhelming power to disrupt Israel’s system of checks and balances.
Yaniv Roznai, a law professor at Reichman University near Tel Aviv, said that once the override clause is passed, the government could approve other changes to the law that could clear Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s allies plan to draft a law that would delay prosecution of a sitting prime minister for alleged crimes until he leaves office. This is called “French law” because sitting presidents in France are immune from prosecution.
Criminal proceedings may be initiated against sitting Israeli prime ministers. But unlike France, Israeli leaders have no term limits, meaning the immunity shield can last for years. Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving leader, having ruled for 15 years and has no plans to retire.
According to the plan, a prime minister can also be held responsible for some crimes, but corruption charges are excluded. According to Fuchs, the researcher, this law seems tailor-made for Netanyahu.
AMENDMENT OF THE CRIMINAL LAW
Netanyahu’s allies have pledged to remove from the criminal code three charges against Netanyahu: fraud and breach of trust.
According to them, the crime is poorly defined, giving the court too much discretion on sentencing. According to them, this excessively endangers the legislators due to unjustified prosecution.
Critics say dropping the charge would eliminate protections against corruption. They argue that targeting the charge against Netanyahu could undermine the rule of law and open the door to further changes to the legal code to save other lawmakers.
Yoav Sapir, a former Israeli attorney general, said that the abolition of a crime has retroactive effect. This could result in charges being dropped in all three of Netanyahu’s cases, and two out of three being dropped entirely.
RECONFIGURATION OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
Today, Israel’s attorney general consults with the government on the legal viability of legislation and represents it in court, while protecting the public interest from harm caused by government authorities. The Attorney General is appointed by the government and must be approved by a professional committee of former judicial officials and others.
Netanyahu’s allies want to split the attorney general position into three separate jobs, while at least two of the positions are political appointees.
The current Attorney General, Gali Baharav-Miara, was nominated by the outgoing government and appears to have supported her predecessor’s decision to indict Netanyahu. And while firing him is complicated and has bad optics, the mandate to share the position would keep him in his post until the end of 2028 while shifting some of his duties to a political appointee who could decide to end the lawsuit.
Netanyahu’s legal woes give outsized leverage to his prospective coalition partners, who have driven a hard bargain in the tougher-than-expected talks now underway to form a government.
His allies are clamoring for powerful portfolios such as defense, finance and public safety. They want to grant legal immunity to soldiers fighting against Palestinians, allow gender segregation in certain public spaces, and increase state scholarships for tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews who study Jewish texts instead of working.
Ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties may hold the key to Netanyahu’s legal salvation, giving them great power to decide the next government’s agenda and shape Israel’s future.