Israel's Netanyahu defends plan to rein in judiciary

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu defended on Friday a proposed shakeup of the judiciary but also indicated changes could be made to draft legislation that critics say would damage democracy and the independence of courts.

The 73-year-old political veteran, who is on trial for corruption charges that he denies, returned to power in December at the head of a nationalist, religious government.

One of its first moves was a bill which, if written into law, would limit High Court rulings against government moves or Knesset parliament laws, while increasing politicians' sway over the selection of judges.

In a video response to stark criticism by Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, Netanyahu said the draft law could be tweaked but critics were exaggerating the changes proposed.

"When one says a minor correction would be the destruction of democracy, it is not only a false argument, it is also one that does not allow any understandings that should be reached in substantive discussions in the Israeli Knesset," he said.

"Corrections (to the legal system) must be done responsibly and with careful consideration while hearing all the positions and that's exactly the process that will now take place in the legislature."

Hayut on Thursday said that if implemented as outlined by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the reform would compromise judiciary independence.

"If the plan is realized, (Israel's) 75th anniversary will be remembered as the year the country's democratic integrity suffered a mortal blow," he said.

Backers of the bill have long accused the Supreme Court of overreach and elitism. They say the changes would restore balance between the judiciary, executive and legislature.

The Knesset's constitutional committee has begun discussing the plan.

Critics say it risks fostering corruption, harming minority rights, compromising Israel in legal investigations abroad and deterring investors. Several protests have taken place over the past week, with further demonstrations planned on Saturday.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)