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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comments on contentious new law

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Israel now, where a new law strips the country's Supreme Court of a key power to override high-level appointments by the prime minister. The measure is contentious. It passed this week despite pleas from President Biden and despite protests in Israeli streets that drew hundreds of thousands of people. Now, for the first time, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, tells NPR what he expects to do with that law. Let me bring in NPR's Daniel Estrin from Tel Aviv. Hi there, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So Netanyahu spoke to our NPR colleague Steve Inskeep, and we can hear their full conversation tomorrow on Morning Edition. But since you were listening in, give us the headlines.

ESTRIN: Sure. He told NPR that, with this new law passed, he expects to reappoint his ally, a convicted felon, as a cabinet member or a senior member of his government. So let me explain that. This year the court said that it was, quote, "extremely unreasonable" for Aryeh Deri to serve as a government minister because he was recently convicted on tax offenses. But the law that passed this week stripped the Supreme Court from ruling on that basis. And so our colleague Steve Inskeep asked this of Netanyahu.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Will you reappoint him then?

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Well, you know, it depends what happens, of course, with the legislation. We have to see. But if it stands, you know, I expect it to happen. I don't expect - I don't know if the court will actually strike this down.

ESTRIN: Now, what Netanyahu was saying there is that if the Supreme Court does not repeal this new law, he expects to reappoint tax felon Aryeh Deri. This was the speculation, and Netanyahu never said it publicly and clearly until now. One legal expert told me that this kind of statement from Netanyahu could affect whether the Supreme Court does strike down this law. The court has been critical about passing this kind of major law to solve a narrow personal matter.

KELLY: OK. Meanwhile, let me turn you to another personal matter. All these questions have been swirling about whether Netanyahu will use this change in the law to dismiss someone else as attorney general. Did he say to Steve whether he will?

ESTRIN: He did say that. For the first time, he said he will not dismiss the attorney general.

NETANYAHU: It's not even - it's not on the table, and it won't happen.

ESTRIN: Now, this new law could actually help Netanyahu dismiss the attorney general or strip her of her powers. Her office oversees the prosecution of Netanyahu's corruption trial. He could replace her with someone more favorable, who could dismiss his trial. And many members of Netanyahu's own government say they want her fired. I asked legal expert Mordechai Kremnitzer from the Israel Democracy Institute about Netanyahu's pledge to NPR that his law has nothing to do with the attorney general or his own corruption trial. And this legal expert says he doubts it.

MORDECHAI KREMNITZER: It's clear that it has to do with the trial of Netanyahu as well as it has to do with the wish of this government to get rid of the rule of law.

KELLY: Daniel, as we said earlier, President Biden was urging Netanyahu not to do this, not to pass this law. He's done it anyway. How does Netanyahu justify that?

ESTRIN: Yeah. Biden was urging Netanyahu not to pass the law without broad consensus because of threats to Israel's security. Military reservists have threatened not to serve in protest of the law. Netanyahu said, it's not affecting our national defense. We're hearing, actually, a different tune from Israeli defense officials.

KELLY: Okey-doke. NPR's Daniel Estrin. Thank you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

KELLY: And we will hear more from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his interview with Steve on Morning Edition tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.