In a reversal of its election campaign pledges, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party told the High Court of Justice Tuesday that it believes Benjamin Netanyahu should be able to serve as prime minister despite the criminal indictments against him, urging that petitions against him forming the next government be rejected.
Responding to a petition by the Movement for Quality Government claiming that the coalition agreement signed April 20 by Blue and White and Likud is unconstitutional, the centrist party said the deal, and the various contentious clauses in it, was necessary to prevent fourth elections.
Though Blue and White noted the severity of the criminal accusations against the prime minister, the party said the special circumstances of deep political, health and economic crises necessitate forming an emergency government, as set out in its agreement with Likud.
“In light of the very special set of circumstances facing the State of Israel, three electoral campaigns for a year and a half, a crisis and social polarization, a health crisis stemming from the spread of the coronavirus, an economic crisis stemming in part from a health crisis and legal uncertainty, we believe that the public interest is required at the time of the establishment of the emergency government. And national unity,” the party wrote.
Under the terms of the deal struck last Monday, which will end over a year of political deadlock during which Israel has not had a permanent government, Gantz will become prime minister in 18 months. Until then, he will serve as defense minister and have veto power over most legislative and policy matters.
Despite running on a campaign to oust Netanyahu from power, Gantz announced last month that he was prepared to join a government with the Likud leader after all — to battle the coronavirus and help protect Israeli democracy.
His move caused a split in his party, with former partners Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon breaking away. Lapid is now set to lead the Knesset opposition.
Many have speculated that Netanyahu will not honor the rotation agreement that requires him to hand over power to Gantz in October 2021. Gantz, therefore, is working with Likud to pass a bill anchoring the necessary mechanism in the law, which involves changing one of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.
To prevent Netanyahu from later overturning the legislation with a regular majority of 61 in the 120-member parliament — which he could feasibly achieve — the bill stipulates that canceling it would require a special majority of 75 lawmakers.
Such a significant change to the Basic Law, weakening the power of the Knesset’s basic majority, has been criticized in some quarters as detrimental to democracy.
The High Court may well decide to intervene in the coalition deal in response to any of the six petitions currently before it.
One petition protests that the Knesset is “abusing its authority to amend Basic Laws in order to change the structure of the regime.” It argues that the agreement violates the principle of the separation of powers by subordinating the Knesset’s powers and responsibilities to the needs of the government.
For example, the coalition agreement states that if Netanyahu is disqualified by the High Court from serving as prime minister in the first six months of the coalition’s lifespan, the Knesset will be dissolved and new elections called.
Some legal scholars have warned that this passage violates the principle of separation of powers, since it triggers the dissolution of the parliament in the case of a judicial ruling against the head of the executive branch. Some even described the clause as a kind of “threat” leveled at the court if it disqualifies an indicted prime minister.
The prime minister faces seven counts of three criminal charges: fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000. Netanyahu denies the charges and claims he is the victim of an attempted political coup, involving the opposition, the media, the police and the state prosecution.
The courts administration announced last week that in the wake of an easing of coronavirus restrictions it would be expanding its activities from May 3, meaning there was no impediment to starting Netanyahu’s corruption trial.
The trial was pushed off by two months, two days before its scheduled March 17 opening hearing, after Justice Minister Amir Ohana declared a “state of emergency” in the court system in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a criticism of Blue and White’s willingness to sit in a government with an indicted prime minister, and to even back changing the law to allow him to head a government, Yesh Atid-Telem No. 2 Moshe Ya’alon said on Monday, Memorial Day eve, “This year we do not deserve the sacrifice of our fallen.”
Responding to his comments in a Tuesday morning interview with Channel 12, Gantz said, “This is a harsh statement that I do not accept. It would have been better had it not been said.”
“I do not intend to pollute the holiness of Memorial Day in a political debate, no matter what they say,” he added.
Explaining the move, he nonetheless said, “I understand the anger and suggest people look at the circumstances and look at the alternatives. I believe that a fourth election at this difficult time is not the right thing for the country. I intend to work for unity for everyone, even for those who are disappointed and disheartened.”
Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report.