As Knesset passes coalition bills, group swiftly resubmits High Court petition

Movement for Quality Government in Israel mounts renewed legal challenge to government deal, hours after justices unanimously reject petitions to thwart pact

Founder of the Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel, Eliad Shraga (right) waits for Supreme court justices to enter the room for a court session on petitions against the coalition agreement, May 4, 2020 (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)
Founder of the Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel, Eliad Shraga (right) waits for Supreme court justices to enter the room for a court session on petitions against the coalition agreement, May 4, 2020 (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel on Thursday once again petitioned the High Court of Justice, minutes after the Knesset passed legislation anchoring the unity deal between Blue and White and Likud into law.

The new petition came hours after the top court unanimously rejected a series of legal challenges against the coalition agreement, including one by the watchdog group, paving the way for the government to be sworn in next week after a year of political deadlock.

In a decision handed out after 11 p.m. on Wednesday, the expanded panel of 11 judges also ruled that there was no legal impediment to Benjamin Netanyahu being tasked with forming a government and retaining the premiership even with indictments against him in three corruption cases, including bribery in one of them. His trial is set to start on May 24.

However, they also hinted that legislation making its way through the Knesset — and approved on Thursday morning — as part of the deal could still be challenged once passed, and said parts of the agreement raised “significant difficulties.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Knesset lawmakers vote in favor of bills anchoring its coalition deal in law on May 7, 2020 (screen capture: YouTube/Knesset channel)

“We petitioned the High Court this morning to cancel the amendment to the Basic Law: The Government, which regulates the concept of an alternate prime minister in the deal between Likud and Blue and White,” the organization said in a statement on Thursday. “This is a fundamental change in the system of governance of Israel’s democracy. The agreement tramples on Israel’s democratic system and represents unprecedented harm to the legislature’s independence.”

In a two-day hearing this week, the court heard arguments from eight petitioners seeking to block Netanyahu setting up a new government and to strike down parts of the complex coalition deal. Among the petitioners was former Gantz ally Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party, and the Movement for Quality Government.

Chief Justice Esther Hayut wrote in her decision that Netanyahu still enjoys the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise, and that the law doesn’t prevent a criminal defendant from forming a government.

“We did not find any legal reason to prevent MK Netanyahu from forming a government,” Hayut wrote. “The legal conclusion we reached does not diminish the gravity of the pending charges against MK Netanyahu for violations of moral integrity, or the difficulties derived from a prime minister serving when charged with criminal activity,” she stressed.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at a second day of hearings on petitions against the coalition agreement between Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on May 3, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

As regards the coalition deal, Hayut called it “highly unusual” and said some of its elements “raise serious difficulties.” Among these, she cited clauses providing for a modified “Norwegian Law,” under which some ministers could give up their Knesset seats, and others on their parties’ lists would take their places in parliament — but not necessarily according to the order in which they ran in the election.

Nonetheless, the court ruled that there was no reason to intervene “at this time,” a phrase that was seen as leaving the door open to future challenges to the legislation underpinning the agreement.

Hayut also noted that the court was not intervening in part because of responses received on Tuesday from Likud and Blue and White, which agreed to amend elements of the agreement that the court had criticized.

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