High Court petition seeks to block Netanyahu from forming government

Movement for Quality Government says PM unfit for task, despite election results, because of his soon-to-start corruption trial

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel filed a petition with the High Court of Justice Tuesday arguing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should not be allowed to form the next government as he faces trial on criminal charges.

“A person accused of criminal charges, in particular serious charges such as bribery, fraud and breach of trust, cannot be seen as fit to take upon himself the role of forming a government,” the group said in a statement.

It accused the prime minister of having spent the past few years “launching direct and harmful attacks against the components of Israeli democracy” and engaging “in a methodical and premeditated process of delegitimization of law enforcement authorities and their executive bodies — from the police, through to the State Attorney’s Office, the attorney general, the Knesset legal adviser, the courts and judges.”

The petition followed Netanyahu’s apparent election triumph. With 90 percent of the vote counted, his Likud party leads Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White by 36 seats to 32, and the right-wing bloc has 59 seats out of 61 needed to form a government.

“It is inconceivable for a prime minister to spend the morning in court as an accused, and in the evening preside over the security cabinet,” said Eliad Shraga, the chairman of the Movement for Quality Government. “The Supreme Court must intervene and determine acceptable norms. A person like that cannot run the state of Israel when he undermines the very ground the state and its institutions stand on. Such a person cannot serve as a leader and a role model, and cannot serve as prime minister.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan tweeted in response: “A disgraceful petition against the clear decision of the people. I am sure there will be more than 60 Knesset members to form a government headed by Netanyahu and to enact legislation, if necessary, clarifying the law that just as someone indicted can serve as prime minister, they can also form a government.”

Eliad Shraga, chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, speaks at a protest at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to quit following the announcement by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that he would stand trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three different corruption cases. November 30, 2019. Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Israeli law requires cabinet ministers facing criminal indictment to resign from their cabinet posts; however there is no such stipulation for a prime minister. In January, the High Court rejected a previous petition filed by the movement arguing that Netanyahu cannot form a government after the election due to the charges against him. At the time, the court said a decision on the matter was “premature.”

Netanyahu’s trial commences March 17.

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.

In Case 1000, involving accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for favors, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit charged Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust — the latter being a somewhat murkily defined offense relating to an official violating the trust the public has placed in him.

In Case 2000, involving accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken the circulation of a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth, Mandelblit charged the premier with fraud and breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery.

In Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious against the premier, Netanyahu stands accused of having advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. In that case Mandelblit is charging Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.

The indictment says the relationship between Netanyahu and Elovitch was “based on give and take,” and the prime minister’s actions benefiting Elovitch netted the businessman benefits to the tune of some NIS 1.8 billion ($500 million) in the period 2012-2017. In exchange, Elovitch’s Walla news site “published [Netanyahu’s] political messages that [he] wished to convey to the public,” according to the indictment.

“[He] took benefits… while knowing [he was] taking a bribe as a public servant in exchange for actions related to your position,” it alleged.

The prime minister’s actions, wrote state prosecutors, “were carried out amid a conflict of interests, the weighing of outside considerations relating to his own and his family’s interests, and involved the corrupting of the public servants reporting to him.”

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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