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High Court rejects petition to bar Netanyahu from forming government

Justices say there’s no legal impediment preventing PM from heading up coalition despite ongoing corruption trial

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits at a hearing in his corruption trial at Jerusalem District Court, April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits at a hearing in his corruption trial at Jerusalem District Court, April 5, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

The High Court of Justice on Sunday rejected a petition seeking to bar Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a government amid his corruption trial.

The petition was filed by a group called “The Fortress of Democracy,” composed of 70 academics, former defense officials and businesspeople, who argued that Netanyahu should not lead a government while under indictment.

They also contended that Netanyahu should be disqualified for reneging on a conflict of interest agreement he agreed to last year that bars him from being personally involved in judicial and law enforcement appointments.

But the High Court justices said they found no legal basis for the argument.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit told the High Court Wednesday that he saw no reason for judges to intervene in President Reuven Rivlin’s decision to task Netanyahu with forming a government. Mandelblit argued there was “no justification for judicial interference” in the matter.

He pointed to a High Court ruling last year by an expanded panel of 11 judges that said Netanyahu can form a government despite the ongoing criminal trial against him in three corruption cases.

Mandelblit said the new petition failed to provide any argument that would alter the previous ruling, and recommended that the court reject it out of hand.

Last month, the High Court ruled that Netanyahu must abide by conflict of interest rules laid out by Mandelblit preventing him from appointing senior law enforcement and justice officials.

Under Mandelblit’s arrangement, Netanyahu cannot be involved in any matters that affect witnesses or other defendants in his graft trial, or in legislation that would impact the legal proceedings against him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz face away from each other during the swearing-in of the 24th Knesset (Knesset spokesperson’s office)

Meanwhile, Israel has been without a justice minister since early this month after Benny Gantz’s maximal three-month term as acting justice minister expired. Netanyahu can’t take the post for himself since he is a criminal defendant, and has blocked attempts to approve another candidate.

Mandelblit last week issued a legal opinion saying the high-level security cabinet and coronavirus cabinet cannot hold votes until a full-time justice minister has been appointed.

Gantz has been demanding that he be tapped as full-time minister, and Netanyahu has refused.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits with his lawyers at a hearing in his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court, April 5, 2021. (Pool/AFP)

The first hearings in the evidentiary phase of Netanyahu’s trial for alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust were held earlier this month. The thrice-weekly hearings are set to resume on Monday.

Netanyahu, the first Israeli premier to be indicted while in office, denies any wrongdoing and has railed against the courts, prosecution and media for what he terms a “witch hunt.” He alleges the state prosecution, police, media and opposition are framing him in an attempted political coup.

Following the March 23 election, the fourth in two years, Netanyahu was tasked by Rivlin with attempting to form a government, though neither he nor his rivals appear to have a path to a majority.

If Netanyahu does not succeed by May 4 and Rivlin does not grant him an extension, the president can either task a second person with the attempt (for another period of 28 days and a possible additional 14), or send the mandate back to the Knesset, giving the legislature 21 days to agree on a candidate supported by 61 MKs.

If the president appoints a second person and that person also fails to assemble a coalition, the mandate automatically returns to the Knesset for the 21-day period. During that time, any MK is eligible to attempt to form a government.

Rivlin has indicated that he may not give the mandate to a second candidate if Netanyahu fails, but rather immediately send it back to the Knesset. He also appears unlikely to grant an extension to Netanyahu before doing so.

At the end of the 21-day period, if no candidate has been agreed upon by 61 MKs, the new Knesset automatically disbands and the country heads to yet another election.

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