Israel’s Supreme Court weighs in on Netanyahu’s fitness for office

The decision is a shift from earlier ones in which the court rejected petitions calling for Netanyahu’s disqualification.

By David Isaac, World Israel News

Israel’s Supreme Court is weighing some six petitions regarding the lawfulness of the unity deal signed on Monday between the Likud and Blue and White and on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fitness for office. It has given until next Tuesday 10:00 a.m. for the two parties to respond to the claims against them.

The Tuesday deadline is an extension from an original one set for next Sunday at 11:00 a.m.

The court decision is a shift from earlier ones in which it rejected hearing petitions in at least three instances, arguing that since a new government with Netanyahu at its head had not been formed the petitions were premature, lacked practical implications and were asking the court to weigh in on a theoretical situation.

But now that a unity government has been agreed to in which Netanyahu will serve as premier on a rotational basis with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, the situation in the court’s eyes has changed. High Court Judge Yitzhak Amit asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Netanyahu and Gantz to submit their response.

As recently as April 12, the High Court had rejected a petition asking the court to deny the prime minister the opportunity to form a government.

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The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, an NGO, had also petitioned the court on March 4 and on November 24, 2019.

The main argument of the petition was that Netanyahu faced indictment in three corruption cases and should therefore be disqualified. According to Israeli law, an individual may serve as prime minister even under indictment.

The March petition argued: “A person accused of criminal charges, in particular serious charges such as bribery, fraud and breach of trust, cannot be seen as fit to take upon himself the role of forming a government.”

One of the main sticking points in negotiations to form a unity government was Netanyahu’s concern that the Supreme Court would intervene and force him from office. He sought to include assurances within the deal to protect himself from such interference.

Although Netanyahu didn’t succeed in putting an ‘override clause’ into the coalition agreement, as he had reportedly wanted, in which a Knesset majority of 70 could override a Supreme Court decision, it does say that a disqualification within the first six months of Netanyahu’s term would immediately trigger another election.

The deal also states that Netanyahu will stay in the prime minister’s role until and unless he is convicted and has exhausted all his appeals.

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Israel has gone to the polls in three back-to-back elections, part of a political impasse that lasted a year-and-a-half, only ending with the deal for an emergency unity government, which was signed on Monday.