High Court to livestream hearings on petitions to bar Netanyahu, coalition deal

11 justices to hear half a dozen petitions on Sunday and Monday, including challenge to Likud-Blue and White agreement

Illustrative: Supreme Court President Esther Hayut (C) arrives for a High Court preliminary hearing on whether a lawmaker facing criminal indictment can be tapped to form a coalition, December 31, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative: Supreme Court President Esther Hayut (C) arrives for a High Court preliminary hearing on whether a lawmaker facing criminal indictment can be tapped to form a coalition, December 31, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice will broadcast live its highly anticipated hearings Sunday and Monday on petitions to rule out a government led by an indicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and nullify his unity deal with Blue and White’s Benny Gantz.

The court announced the livestream on Thursday, days before an expanded panel of 11 justices will consider six petitions with far-reaching political ramifications.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the court has ordered all present at the hearing to wear masks in accordance with state rules, which may be removed when addressing the court.

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 coalition agreement between Netanyahu and 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.

In this February 16, 2020, file photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. (Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP, File)

Earlier Thursday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, in an opinion submitted to the High Court, said there was no legal impediment to Netanyahu forming and leading the next government despite the criminal charges against him.

“Despite the significant difficulties that arise in this matter, they do not constitute grounds for judicial intervention,” Mandelblit wrote with regard to the bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges against Netanyahu in three cases.

“All this, without detracting from the severity of the indictment filed against Netanyahu, and without undermining the consistent judgment of the honorable court regarding the need for strict adherence to incorruptibility among elected officials,” he added.

“The fact that the legislature did not make an explicit provision regarding the situation in which an indictment is filed against a prime minister indicates a conscious choice that a prime minister may continue to hold office up until his conviction by a final verdict with regard to an offense where there is moral turpitude,” Mandelblit continued.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling on him to quit, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on April 19, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Movement for Quality Government, one of the groups petitioning to disqualify Netanyahu from forming a government, issued scathing criticism of the attorney general’s opinion, saying he “is hiding behind vague words and legitimizing corruption.”

President Reuven Rivlin wrote Thursday with regard to the petitions that his office does not have the authority to discuss the issue of Netanyahu’s candidacy to form a government, which, he said, was a question for the justices.

Netanyahu’s supporters charge that the court does not have the legal authority to rule against him, 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.

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.

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.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right), Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Chief Justice of Supreme Court Esther Hayut at the memorial ceremony for the late President Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The High Court is also due to hear a petition against the coalition agreement between Likud and Blue and White after having previously refused to rule on petitions regarding the issue, arguing that they were hypothetical.

The coalition deal struck on April 20, which would end over a year of political deadlock if it produces a government over the next two weeks, would see Netanyahu serve as prime minister for the first 18 months, to be replaced by Blue and White leader Gantz for the subsequent 18 months.

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, has been working with Likud to pass a bill anchoring the necessary mechanism in the law, which involves changing two of Israel’s constitutional Basic Laws.

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.

That legislation passed its first Knesset reading on Thursday.

Mandelblit, in his opinion to the court, also wrote Thursday that while he was highly critical of aspects of the coalition agreement, there was no legal impediment to it either.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit (L) and Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at Bar Ilan University on March 4, 2020. (Flash90)

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.

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