High Court dismisses petition seeking to block Netanyahu from being tasked as PM

Judge says filing premature, as case is hypothetical unless Rivlin gives Likud leader the mandate

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference about the coronavirus, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference about the coronavirus, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

The High Court on Sunday evening threw out a petition filed earlier in the day seeking to disqualify Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a government due to his corruption charges, saying it was filed too early.

Justice Alex Stein ruled that the petition was premature, since, despite President Reuven Rivlin saying he would not extend Benny Gantz’s mandate to form a coalition, he also had not tasked Netanyahu with doing so.

Two previous High Court petitions have been rejected in recent months on similar grounds, including after the September elections, when Netanyahu had not yet been formally indicted.

Stein said in his ruling that in the event that Rivlin tasks Netanyahu with cobbling together a coalition, the petition could be filed again and considered.

The petition, filed by 117 high-tech, business, security and education professionals, came minutes after Rivlin announced he would not extend Gantz’s mandate to form a government, and suggested he would not transfer the mandate to Netanyahu.

Israeli law requires cabinet ministers facing criminal indictment to resign from their cabinet posts, but there is no such stipulation for a prime minister.

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Reuven Rivlin, center, and Benny Gantz, meeting in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Netanyahu’s trial was due to commence on March 17, but was delayed due to restrictions on Israel’s courts, as part of measures to combat the coronavirus, which were introduced by Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu loyalist. The trial is instead slated to begin on May 24.

Rivlin’s refusal to grant Gantz a 14-day extension to form a government came after he spoke with Gantz and Netanyahu. The prime minister, according to a statement from the President’s Residence, said the parties were not close to signing a coalition agreement.

Rivlin said that if the two leaders do not sign an agreement by midnight on Monday, he would ask Knesset members to recommend one of their peers to receive the mandate to form a government. The first MK to receive more than 61 recommendations would then be tasked by Rivlin.

As negotiations continued, Likud has demanded the inclusion of a clause that would prevent Gantz from taking over immediately as premier in the event that the High Court ends up disqualifying Netanyahu, Channel 12 reported.

Blue and White and Likud were believed to have been on the cusp of reaching a deal last week, before Likud asked to reopen discussions on judicial appointments, leading the talks to blow up. Both parties said Sunday in a joint statement that they were forbidding their members from giving media interviews, hoping to end up signing a deal after all.

The negotiations had previously picked up pace after Gantz was elected Knesset speaker with the backing of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc on March 26, causing the Blue and White alliance to split.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz delivers a statement in Tel Aviv, March 7, 2020, after receiving the mandate to form a government. (AP Photo/ Sebastian Scheiner)

Gantz serving as Knesset speaker and having control over the parliamentary agenda was meant as leverage over Netanyahu. The implied threat was that should Likud  call off the talks after Blue and White split, Gantz and his MKs would rejoin the anti-Netanyahu bloc in passing legislation to prevent an indicted person from serving as premier.

However, that leverage has weakened considerably, as several members of Blue and White and Labor are reportedly considering joining Netanyahu’s bloc rather than going for a fourth successive election in which they are likely to lose their Knesset seats.

Orly Levy-Abekasis, who last month defected from the left-wing Labor-Meretz-Gesher union, on Sunday declared that she would support Netanyahu for the premiership.

The Likud party has urged the president to immediately grant Netanyahu the mandate, saying he is “the head of the largest party in the Knesset with 59 recommendations, just as President Rivlin acted after the previous elections in September, when he transferred the mandate from Prime Minister Netanyahu to MK Gantz.”

The right-wing religious bloc backing Netanyahu also urged Rivlin to give the Likud leader a shot at forming a government. In a statement, the heads of the Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Yamina parties called on Rivlin to “transfer the mandate to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has 59 recommendations, just like after the previous elections in September when you transferred the mandate to MK Benny Gantz when he had only 54 recommendations.”

The tally of 59 MKs includes the right-wing parties and Levy-Abekasis.

Netanyahu 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. He denies the allegations and says he is the victim of an attempted political coup by the opposition, police and state prosecutors.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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