Israel military legal officer warns of curbs to judicial independence

FILE PHOTO: Demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's chief military legal officer on Monday warned against steps that would compromise court independence, in what appeared to be the clearest public criticism yet by top brass of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan.

Military Advocate General Major Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi cautioned against Israel being stripped of one of its main defences on international legal issues, according to her speech at a conference of Israel's Bar Association in Tel Aviv.

"The Israel Defence Forces (IDF)'s international legitimacy efforts are greatly benefited by the aura, the protection, with which the justice system provides it - particularly, the Supreme Court's professional and independent international status," said Tomer-Yerushalmi.

"Measures that may harm, or be perceived as harmful to, the independence, professionalism and effectiveness of the justice system, may crack the aura that the judicial system provides to the military and harm the interests of the state of Israel."

The Military Advocate General's Corps is tasked with upholding the rule of law within army ranks and includes an international law department that advises the military on laws of armed conflict.

Tomer-Yerushalmi added that the military has been presenting the government with the possible implications of its judicial measures. Israel has faced criticism over the legality of its actions in its decades-old conflict with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu's nationalist-religious coalition launched a campaign in January to overhaul the country's justice system, stirring concern for Israel's democratic health and sparking unprecedented protests that have seeped into the military.

Netanyahu has since said some of the measures in the original plan have been scrapped and that he would seek a broad consensus on any new judicial reforms, which he says are aimed at restoring balance between the branches of government.

The Supreme Court is set to hear a series of appeals this month by lawmakers and watchdogs that challenge Netanyahu's judicial measures, including a law that was passed in July and which limits the court's power to rule against the government.

The court has been long feted as a torch-bearer for democratic rights by its supporters at home and abroad but it is frequently accused of being elitist, interventionist and left-leaning by its critics.

(Editing by James Mackenzie and Tomasz Janowski)