The High Court of Justice announced Tuesday that a large panel of 11 justices will begin hearing petitions next week asking them to bar Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from returning to the premiership while he remains under indictment in his corruption trial.
The court will also begin to consider arguments against the coalition deal signed on April 20 between Netanyahu’s Likud party and the Blue and White party that critics say violates essential elements of Israel’s constitutional regime. The court process comes as a May 7 deadline looms for the formation of a new government, with the risk of new elections if the coalition deal stalls.
The hearings, which will be held on Sunday and Monday, are politically charged. The coalition deal between Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz states that if Netanyahu is prevented from serving as prime minister, the Knesset will dissolve and call new elections slated for August — which would be the fourth consecutive vote in 16 months.
Netanyahu’s supporters charge that the court lacks the legal authority to rule against Netanyahu, as Israeli law only requires a prime minister to resign if he or she is convicted of a serious crime and all appeals are exhausted.
The petitioners, however, argue that the law only refers to an already-elected prime minister. A member of Knesset under indictment should not be appointed prime minister in the first place, they are arguing, in keeping with the longstanding standard for other cabinet ministers.
Chief Justice Esther Hayut said in a statement Tuesday she was considering taking the rare step of publicly broadcasting the proceedings, to give the Israeli public a window into the court’s deliberations over Netanyahu’s fate.
She asked the petitioners and affected parties to notify the court of any reservations over such a public broadcast by Thursday.
Hayut also announced the justices who will hear the petitions: herself, Deputy Chief Justice Hanan Melcer, Neal Hendel, Uzi Vogelman, Yitzhak Amit, Noam Sohlberg, Daphne Barak-Erez, Menachem Mazuz, Anat Baron, George Karra and David Mintz.
The petitions were submitted by various groups, including the anti-corruption advocacy organization Movement for Quality Government and the Yesh Atid-Telem faction in the Knesset.
In its initial response to the petitions, the Likud party on Tuesday told the court that if it disqualifies Netanyahu it will be intervening in the constitutional authority granted by law to the president and the Knesset.
“Politics must not enter the courtroom, and the courtroom must not enter the political world,” the party argued.
Netanyahu’s attorneys also submitted an initial response to the petitions, saying that the petitioners were trying to “drag” the court to “undermine the holy of holies of our constitutional regime, to undermine the right of the public to choose who will lead it.” They insisted the court “has no legal authority to disqualify Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
A more circumspect response from Blue and White, whose leader, Gantz, ran in the last three elections on a campaign promise not to sit in a government with an indicted Netanyahu, acknowledged the severity of the allegations against the prime minister, but argued that the court should nevertheless approve Netanyahu’s candidacy and the coalition deal in order to help stabilize the government amid the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis.
“In light of the very special set of circumstances facing the State of Israel, three electoral campaigns in a year and a half… 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 requires at this time the establishment of an emergency government and national unity,” the party wrote.
Responding to the court’s announcement, the Movement for Quality Government, one of the petitioners, said it would hold another in a series of rallies against the coalition agreement on Saturday night at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.
“The fight for Israel’s character will take place both in the courtroom and in the streets,” the movement’s head, Eliad Shraga, said in a statement. “Israel is too precious to abandon to the whims of a criminal suspect,” he added, referring to Netanyahu.
The coalition deal struck on April 20, which will end over a year of political deadlock if it produces a government over the next two weeks, will see Netanyahu serve as prime minister for the first 18 months, to be replaced by Gantz for the subsequent 18 months.
Gantz’s decision to form a unity government with Netanyahu caused a split in his Blue and White alliance, with former partners Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, of the Yesh Atid and Telem parties, respectively, 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 two of Israel’s constitutional Basic Laws.
Gantz will serve as defense minister and have veto power over most legislative and policy matters in the interim.
To prevent Netanyahu from later overturning the legislation with a regular majority of 61 in the 120-member parliament — which he could feasibly obtain — the bill stipulates that canceling it would require a special majority of 75 lawmakers.
Such significant changes to the Basic Laws, weakening the power of the Knesset majority to rein in the government, has been criticized in some quarters as detrimental to democracy.
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 coup” involving the opposition, the media, the police and the state prosecution.
His trial was pushed off by two months just 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.
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 longer an impediment to starting Netanyahu’s corruption trial.