Watchdog group calls on High Court to declare Netanyahu unfit to hold office

In petition to justices, Israeli Democracy Guard accuses PM of pursuing judicial overhaul plan with the sole purpose of ‘escaping prosecution’ in ongoing criminal trial

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An Israeli democracy watchdog filed a petition to the High Court of Justice on Tuesday asking it to rule on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fit to hold office.

The petition was filed just days after the High Court ruled that Shas leader Aryeh Deri was unable to serve as a minister, and amid reports that the attorney general has considered compelling Netanyahu to take a leave of absence due to a conflict of interest — something she has denied.

The Israeli Democracy Guard called on the High Court justices “to instruct” the government and Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara “to determine that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unable to fulfill his duties as prime minister,” the organization said in a statement.

Netanyahu is unfit for office due to his ongoing criminal trial, his conflict of interest and his actions to promote a “regime coup d’etat,” the organization added.

In its petition to the court, the Israeli Democracy Guard wrote that there is “a serious and real concern that there is a direct connection between the government plan” to radically overhaul the justice system “and the criminal cases against Netanyahu — and the main purpose of the plan is to help [Netanyahu] escape prosecution.”

Netanyahu is currently on trial for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases, known as Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, in which he is accused of providing quid pro quo benefits to two billionaires in return for luxury gifts, and of working to improperly influence media coverage. The prime minister has denied all wrongdoing.

When Netanyahu was indicted in November 2019, he was forced to relinquish all ministerial positions — with the exception of that of prime minister — in line with a High Court precedent.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara at her inauguration ceremony in Jerusalem on February 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Monday, Baharav-Miara denied reports that she had been discussing the possibility of ordering Netanyahu to take a leave of absence from the premiership.

Last week, the attorney general told the High Court that Netanyahu remains bound by conflict of interest rules barring him from making senior law enforcement and judicial appointments, or getting involved in legislative matters that may impact his ongoing trial on corruption charges.

Netanyahu’s new government is in the midst of pushing contentious legislation that will weaken the judiciary. The overhaul proposed by Levin would drastically limit the High Court of Justice’s power of judicial review of legislation; allow the Knesset to re-legislate laws if the court strikes them down; give the government control over judicial appointments; and turn ministry legal advisers into political appointees and make their counsel non-binding.

Coalition leaders on Monday warned Baharav-Miara that any attempt to remove Netanyahu from office on a temporary or permanent basis or infringe on his leadership capabilities would be tantamount to a coup.

“An attempt to declare or announce such a move for an incumbent leader is a clearly illegal attempt to depose and overthrow an elected and legal government, without an iota of justification by the law,” a letter from the leaders of the coalition warned.

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