Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White were due to announce revisions to their three-year coalition deal by 2 p.m. Tuesday, a day after the High Court indicated there were some clauses it could strike down if they aren’t altered and gave the parties 24 hours to introduce changes.
The High Court on Sunday heard petitions against tasking Netanyahu with forming a government, due to his indictment on graft charges, and during a marathon nine-hour hearing on Monday, considered petitions against the Likud-Blue and White coalition deal, which stipulates profound changes to Israel’s constitutional order.
The hearings came with a deadline looming Thursday night for a majority of MKs to recommend one of their number form a government. The alternative is for the Knesset to automatically dissolve, triggering fresh elections, the fourth in a year and a half of political gridlock.
The justices repeatedly pressed Netanyau’s representative, Michael Rabilo, on why the coalition deal doesn’t allow for most non-coronavirus-related legislation to be advanced for the first six months of the government. The lawyer backed down and said an amendment would be made to make the requirement less binding and allow other legislation to be advanced when necessary.
The judges also knocked a clause that bars the appointment of senior officials during the first six months, arguing that the coronavirus crisis had nothing to do with that and that after three consecutive elections and 18 months of being ruled by an interim government that cannot make full-time senior appointments, such appointments couldn’t wait any longer.
The justices said the inclusion of the emergency period itself was also problematic, since there was no definition of its duration or of what exactly would cause it to end.
Another problematic issue highlighted by the justices was the effort to legislate a so-called “skipping Norwegian law,” which would allow some of the eventually envisaged 52 ministers and deputy ministers of the new government to temporarily resign their Knesset posts to let new MKs into the parliament in their stead — but not according to their slate’s original order as current law dictates. This aims to allow Gantz to bring new members of his faction into parliament while skipping members of the Yesh Atid and Telem factions, which splintered from in Blue and White over Gantz’s decision to ally himself with Netanyahu.
Judges panned that law, saying it violates the will of the voters who cast their ballots for the list in the order it was seen on the day of elections.
Chief Justice Esther Hayut ordered Blue and White representative Shimon Bar-On to provide a legal justification for the law within 24 hours. Bar-On agreed, though reports said that Likud and Blue and White were considering altering that law, and a report Tuesday said Blue and White had given up on making any changes to it before the government is formed.
“We will continue to look for a softened version of the Norwegian Law, taking into account the judges’ comments yesterday, but this will not happen before the government’s inauguration,” a Blue and White official was quoted as saying by the Walla news site.
Hayut also asked Likud representative Avi Halevy if there was a reason to not make two Knesset committees headed by a member of the opposition, as has always been customary (the coalition deal leaves the opposition with just one committee), possibly indicating that was another clause where it may intervene.
The court invited Likud and Blue and White to consider changing all the problematic clauses and come back with a response within 24 hours.
However, the justices appeared to dismiss both sides’ insistence that they hand down a swift ruling regarding the legitimacy of legislation anchoring power-sharing agreements between Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Gantz and naming the latter “alternate prime minister” — a position specially tailored for the deal — as well as bills to nix the current cap of 19 on the number of ministers (the deal includes 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers). They argued that because the legislation in question has not yet been passed, and some of it has not even been submitted to the Knesset for a preliminary vote, they could not intervene.
Many other elements of the unity deal seemed set to be ratified by the court.
At various point during the deliberations, the justices slammed representatives for the petitioners against the deal for using “irrelevant” arguments that were political or moral in nature, not legal.
Like the first day of hearings, Monday’s discussions, before an expanded panel of 11 justices, were broadcast live.
While Monday’s deliberations concerned the controversial aspects of the coalition deal negotiated by Netanyahu and Gantz, Sunday’s seven-hour hearing discussed whether Netanyahu should even be allowed to lead a new coalition in light of his indictment in three corruption cases — with justices hinting that they were unpersuaded by the petitioners.
The court is set to issue a ruling on both matters by Thursday.
Netanyahu said Monday night that the High Court should not interfere with his efforts to form a government and warned that if it did so it would go “against the will of the people” and increase the chances of a fourth election.
Netanyahu, in power since 2009, and ex-military chief Gantz faced off in three inconclusive elections in less than a year. With neither man able to form a viable governing coalition in Israel’s deeply divided 120-seat parliament, they agreed to a power-sharing deal last month, saying they aimed to avert a fourth vote opposed across the political spectrum.
But the deal faces eight petitions challenging its validity before the High Court. Five of the eight, submitted by anti-corruption watchdog groups and others, argue that members of Knesset indicted on corruption charges, such as Netanyahu, cannot be appointed prime minister.
Current law allows a prime minister to remain in power so long as he has not been convicted of criminal wrongdoing, with all avenues of appeal exhausted. However, the case of a prime minister under indictment being poised to establish a new government is seen as something of a legal blind spot.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and claimed the charges against him are an effort by political rivals, the media, and law enforcement to remove him from office.
Agencies contributed to this report.