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Supreme Court hears first day of petitions over government agreement

What happened: An expanded panel of 11 judges, presided over by Chief Justice Esther Hayut, reviewed petitions filed against Benjamin Netanyahu remaining prime minister due to his indictment in three corruption cases. The court deliberated for seven hours, which in a rare instance was also broadcast live. Today, the justices will reconvene and hear petitions arguing that aspects of the Blue and White-Likud coalition agreement are unconstitutional.

  • Chief Justice Hayut pushed back against “populism” from both sides, and told the council for petitioners that “the fortress (of democracy) will not fall,” if the court rules to allow Netanyahu to form a coalition government despite being under indictment.
  • Netanyahu’s lawyer argued that over a million Israelis had voted for Netanyahu with the knowledge he could be prime minister. “How can you say that this panel can replace the voters?” he asked the court.
  • The petitioners including Eliad Shraga, founder of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel. He claimed that public norms and the faith of the public in its elected representatives were at stake. Shraga argued “it is unconscionable, that a man will go in the morning to court to sit in the dock, and in the evening will manage the Security Cabinet and send us and our children to battle.”
  • Blue and White’s representative argued that the party didn’t take the corruption charges against Netanyahu lightly, but emphasised that there has been no full-time government for more than a year, following three elections.
  • Last week Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit submitted his response to the court, arguing: “Despite the major difficulties, they are not grounds for judicial intervention, as this would mean that a majority of MKs would not be able to initiate forming a new government in Israel that MK Netanyahu heads.”

Context: Netanyahu and Benny Gantz signed the coalition agreement to form a national government last month. According to the deal, Netanyahu will serve the first 18 months as prime minister, after which Gantz will take over for the next 18 months. To facilitate this arrangement, changes need to be made to Israel’s basic laws, including the creation of the role alternate prime minister.

  • Netanyahu’s criminal trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust will begin on 24 May at the District Court in Jerusalem. Under Israeli law, a prime minister may remain in the job while criminal proceedings against them are being deliberated in the courts and until a final verdict is reached, including all levels of appeal. It remains untested if the status of the alternate prime minister holds the same standing.
  • To further compound the situation, Netanyahu is currently serving as the caretaker head of a transitional government after 18 months of political deadlock. According to some interpretations of Israeli law, that makes Netanyahu merely a candidate to become prime minister. The petitioners argued that his candidacy should therefore be disqualified by the indictments.
  • The role of the judiciary itself has been heavily politicised, with those on the right accusing the Supreme Court of overstepping its boundaries and of political interference. The traditional centre-left consider it a bastion of democracy under attack.
  • Yediot Ahronot quoted a Likud figure who threatened: “If the justices disqualify Netanyahu as a candidate for prime minister, or if it cancels parts of the coalition agreement between the Likud and Blue and White—that will mean a fourth election. Meddling by the High Court of Justice will of necessity lead to elections in which the authorities of the High Court of Justice and the override clause will be the main topic.”
  • Protest groups in opposition to Netanyahu have held regular demonstrations against his continued rule.

Looking ahead: Today the court will hear petitions against the coalition agreement. The court is set to issue a ruling later in the week. The assessment among most analysts is that the justices were not persuaded by yesterday’s petitioners. However, if they disqualify any section of the coalition agreement, it could jeopardise the whole deal.

  • From Tuesday the focus will return to the Knesset, where three bills need to pass their 2nd and 3rd readings, two of them amendments to Basic Laws. They must become law by Thursday, as that is the deadline for the Knesset to approve a government or present 61 MKs to back a candidate for prime minister. The Knesset is unlikely to approve the new government if the legislation ensuring the rotation deal between Netanyahu and Gantz hasn’t become law.
  • If, by Thursday, the signatures of 61 MKs are not submitted to the president, there will be a fourth election. If they recommend Netanyahu, he will have another two weeks to form the government.