Netanyahu threatens new elections as High Court weighs unity agreement

Speaking to reporters following a briefing on coronavirus developments, Netanyahu pressed the court not to get involved in the country’s political affairs lest it risk forcing new elections.

By Associated Press

Israel’s prime minister urged the country’s Supreme Court on Monday not to interfere in his efforts to build a coalition government, threatening that a decision against him could drag the country toward an unprecedented fourth straight election in just over a year.

“We hope the court doesn’t interfere. It doesn’t need to interfere. There is the will of the people, the clear expression of the will of the people,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, speaking to reporters after a coronavirus-related address.

If a court ruling picks apart the coalition deal, it “increases the chances that we will be dragged to fourth elections, something that will be a catastrophe,” he added.

Netanyahu made his comments shortly after the court heard a second day of arguments in a series of legal challenges to the coalition deal.

The court’s rulings, expected by the end of the week, will dictate whether Israel breaks out of its prolonged political paralysis with Netanyahu and his former political rival Benny Gantz joining forces in government, or whether the country is plunged into another election.

The court is looking into two key questions: whether a politician facing corruption charges, such as Netanyahu, can form a new government; and whether his coalition deal with Gantz violates the law.

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An unusually large panel of 11 justices, all wearing face masks and separated by plastic barriers, heard the case against the emerging coalition. Reflecting the case’s importance, the court took the rare step of streaming the proceedings on its website and on national TV.

Netanyahu and his allies view the high court as a liberal bastion that overreached its boundaries to meddle in political affairs, accusing it of undermining the will of the people as expressed in national elections.

After deadlocking in three closely contested election campaigns, Netanyahu and former military chief Gantz reached a deal last month in which they would be sworn in together for an emergency government ostensibly to battle the coronavirus and its economic fallout.

The deal calls for Netanyahu to serve first as prime minister and Gantz as the designated premier, with the two swapping posts after 18 months. The new position will enjoy all the trappings of the prime minister, including an official residence and exemption from a law that requires all public officials, except the prime minister, to resign if charged with a crime.

The court will be asked to rule on this arrangement — and there is a sense of urgency as Thursday marks the deadline for presenting a new government before new elections are called.

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Zeev Elkin, a Cabinet minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party, warned that any court intervention could trigger a highly unpopular election.

“The coalition agreement is very complex. Moving a single brick could bring the entire structure down and force fourth elections,” Elkin told Israel’s Army Radio.

Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, said in an opinion to the court that while Netanyahu’s indictments “raise significant problems,” there was no legal basis for barring him from serving while facing criminal charges. But good governance groups have appealed against this, citing the precedent of forcing Cabinet ministers and mayors to resign if indicted.