Israel’s attorney general issued a sharp rebuke to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, warning him that he had broken the law by announcing that he would become more personally involved in his government’s efforts to overhaul the judiciary.
The attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, said Mr. Netanyahu’s announcement on Thursday night had breached a Supreme Court ruling from earlier in the year that said the prime minister must avoid conflicts of interest between his professional role and private interests.
Mr. Netanyahu is currently on trial for corruption in the same judicial system that his government is trying to overhaul.
“Your statement last night,” Ms. Baharav-Miara wrote in a letter to Mr. Netanyahu on Friday, was “illegal and tainted by a conflict of interest.”
The development added a dramatic new complexity to Israel’s internal turmoil, which was set off in January when Mr. Netanyahu’s government announced plans to increase government control over who gets to be a judge and reduce the judiciary’s ability to strike down laws passed by Parliament.
Supporters of the plan say it is necessary to give elected lawmakers primacy over unelected judges. But critics say it will remove one of the few checks on government overreach, potentially paving the way for authoritarian rule.
The standoff has led to one of the gravest domestic crises in Israeli history.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters have been demonstrating against the plans every week since the start of the year. Business leaders have begun to divest from Israel amid fears about looming threats to the rule of law. Thousands of military reservists have either warned that they would refuse volunteer service if the overhaul passes, or have already done so. And leading public figures, including the president, Isaac Herzog, have warned that the crisis might lead to civil war.
The attorney general’s intervention on Friday amplified tensions because it raised the possibility that Mr. Netanyahu — already on trial for bribery and fraud — could be prosecuted for yet another possible breach of the law. The attorney general’s office gave no indication that she would begin legal proceedings herself. But private parties could petition the Supreme Court to adjudicate, opening yet another front between the government and the judiciary.
One of the campaign groups leading the anti-government protests, the Movement for the Quality of Government, announced Friday that it would file a motion for contempt of court and “demand that the prime minister be subject to the sanctions set forth in the law, including heavy fines and imprisonment.”
There was no immediate official response from the office of Mr. Netanyahu, who flew to London early Friday to meet with the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak.
But Mr. Netanyahu’s allies in Likud, his right-wing party, said that the prime minister had acted legally and accused the attorney general, who was appointed by the previous government, of her own conflict of interest.
“As someone who was appointed and managed by Gideon Saar and his friends, who are influenced by hatred of Netanyahu, you are tainted by a serious conflict of interest when it comes to dealing with Prime Minister Netanyahu,” said Shlomo Karhi, the communications minister, referring to the justice minister in the previous government. “The legal situation is clear: You must avoid any involvement with Netanyahu.”
Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Nazareth, Israel.