Israeli court hears petition challenging Netanyahu’s government
Jerusalem, May 3 (PTI): In a rare move, the Israeli High Court on Sunday began hearing petitions against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forming a government while facing criminal indictments in a session being broadcast live given its significance.
The hearing, held by an exceptionally large panel of 11 out of the court’s 15 justices, focuses on the issue of whether a politician can form a government while under indictment.
Israeli law mandates that cabinet ministers and mayors resign if indicted, but does not explicitly prohibit a politician from becoming a Prime Minister if backed by the majority support in the Knesset (Israeli parliament).
Netanyahu, 70, was indicted earlier this year on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. He has denied any wrongdoing.
His trial was postponed due to restrictions his hand-picked interim justice minister placed on the courts after the coronavirus crisis erupted and is scheduled to commence later this month.
Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit last week said that while Netanyahu’s indictments “raise significant problems,” there was no legal basis for barring him from serving while facing criminal charges.
Speaking at the opening of the High Court hearing on Sunday, Anar Helman, representing the Attorney General’s Office, reiterated the same opinion saying that there is no legal obstacle despite serious crimes of personal integrity .
“The main consideration that must be taken into account is the realization of the voters’ will. This is the democratic system, Helman said, arguing that the law differentiates between a Prime Minister and a Minister, who is not allowed to serve under indictment, due to the fact that the Prime Minister is elected by the people.
“The fact that a person has been indicted for serious crimes of personal integrity does not prevent the Knesset members from recommending him to assemble the government. The Attorney General’s Office believes that there is no impediment that Knesset Member Netanyahu will form the next government, Helman asserted.
The court will address additional petitions concerning Netanyahu’s power-sharing deal with his main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, on Monday.
Netanyahu and Gantz signed the agreement to form a national government last month after an unprecedented third round of polls which again did not give anybody a clear verdict to form the government.
The deal allows Netanyahu to serve the first 18 months as Prime Minister after which Gantz would assume power for the next 18 months.
Israel could plunge into a deep political chaos if the court decides against Netanyahu forming a government under indictment.
Protesters opposing Netanyahu’s continued rule have been taking to the streets despite the ongoing lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last week saw counter-protests from Netanyahu supporters who demonstrated against “court’s interference in a democratic process”.
The petitions against Netanyahu were filed by advocacy groups that have asked the high court to ban any indicted politician, including Netanyahu, from being allowed to form a new government. They also say that parts of the coalition deal are illegal.
Eliad Shraga, head of Movement for Quality Government in Israel, one of the groups petitioning the court, said in a statement ahead of Sunday’s proceedings that it was “unconscionable that a man like this will go in the morning to court to sit in the dock and in the evening will manage the security cabinet and send us and our children to battle.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, has held onto power as a caretaker leader for more than a year as political stalemate prevented the creation of a government and triggered successive elections.
His ruling Likud party emerged as the single largest party with 36 seats in the 120-member Knesset after the third round of polls but the right-wing bloc led by him could garner only 58 seats, falling short of the simple majority of 61.
Gantz won the backing of 61 Knesset members and was mandated by President Reuven Rivlin to form the next government but he chose to cut a deal with Netanyahu, even at the cost of splitting his Blue and White party given the difficulties of putting together a government in a highly divided Israeli polity.