Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implied Sunday that the High Court of Justice did not have the authority to rule on a petition which claims that he is ineligible to assemble a government due to a pending indictment against him.
“In a democracy, it is the people who decide who will lead them, not anyone else. Otherwise, it just isn’t democracy,” Netanyahu said in a video posted to social media shortly after the court’s announcement that it would hear the case.
The petition against Netanyahu’s potential reelection comes as the prime minister has been accusing prosecutors, the media, and the judiciary of working together in an effort to bring him down on trumped-up corruption charges.
Last month, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced an indictment against Netanyahu in three corruption cases, which include charges of breach of trust, fraud, and, in the most serious case, bribery.
The court’s decision to rule on the question of Netanyahu’s legal eligibility to stand for office appears set to spark a new round of political skirmishing, and will likely be used by Netanyahu’s campaign to advance his assertion that the legal system is staging an “attempted coup” in a bid to topple the right.
One Likud lawmaker, Netanyahu ally MK Miki Zohar, threatened to weaken the court’s powers in the next Knesset term if it rules Netanyahu ineligible.
“If the High Court issues a scandalous ruling that intervenes in political questions by declaring that Netanyahu is prohibited from forming a government, our answer will be clear and direct,” he wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “1. A supercession clause [allowing the Knesset to overturn the court’s rulings] will be [passed] in all three readings immediately after the next Knesset takes office. 2. The ruling will be canceled forthwith, allowing Netanyahu to form the government.”
Zohar predicted such a decree from the court would boost the right’s showing at the ballot box.
“If anything can increase the chances of a 61-seat [majority] for the right, this is it,” he said.
Netanyahu’s challenger in Thursday’s Likud leadership primary, MK Gideon Sa’ar, also criticized the court’s decision to hear the petition, saying the issue “isn’t a legal one, but a political one, and it’s wrong for the High Court to intervene on this issue. The law is clear.”
He added: “You don’t replace a prime minister in the courtroom, but at the ballot box. Netanyahu has twice failed to form a government, and it’s not likely he’ll succeed [next time]. A vote for me on Thursday will ensure the establishment of a Likud government and rescue the country from the ongoing crisis.”
In its Sunday decision, the court said the hearing would take place December 31 at 9 a.m. before a three-judge panel led by Chief Justice Esther Hayut and including Deputy Chief Justice Hanan Melcer and Justice Uzi Vogelman.
The court also asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to produce a legal opinion on the question of Netanyahu’s eligibility to return to the prime minister’s chair, and to hand it to the court at least 48 hours before the hearing.
Israeli law stipulates that a sitting prime minister is only required to resign after he or she is convicted of a serious crime and all appeals have been exhausted. But judicial precedent from the early 1990s and longstanding practice have set a stricter standard for other ministers, who have been forced to resign their cabinet posts, at least temporarily, once indictments have been announced in their cases.
The petition in question was brought in mid-December by attorney Dafna Holtz-Lachner in the name of a group of 67 well-known public figures, academics and tech executives. It argues that the law’s leniency toward an indicted prime minister only refers to a serving premier, not an MK seeking a new appointment to the post, Like Netanyahu, who is officially an interim prime minister. It asks the question: Based on the standard according to which a regular cabinet minister must resign when under indictment, can an MK in a similarly compromised legal position be appointed prime minister in the first place?
The appeal also says that voters have the right to know ahead of the upcoming March 2 election if Netanyahu can legally be appointed by President Reuven Rivlin after election day.
Netanyahu’s legal woes are partially responsible for an unprecedented year-long political deadlock that will see a third election in 11 months held on March 2, 2020. The election was called after Netanyahu twice failed to form a government, following the April 9 and September 17 elections. Challenger Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party also failed in his attempt to cobble together a ruling coalition last month.
The centrist Blue and White has refused to join a coalition either with Netanyahu as a prime minister under indictment or one that would require it to support parliamentary immunity for the longtime premier.
In a petition last month, the corruption watchdog Movement for Quality Government asked the High Court to force Netanyahu to resign outright. That appeal was tossed out in late November after both Mandelblit and the judge hearing the petition, Justice Yosef Elron, concluded that such a resignation had no practical meaning.
Mandelblit noted that Netanyahu’s current legal standing as interim prime minister — head of a caretaker government awaiting the successful conclusion of an election to be replaced by a full-fledged elected government — would not be changed by his resignation, as such a resignation, under law, triggers an election to select a new PM while the outgoing one remains in office with the same “interim” status.