Israel's high court says Benjamin Netanyahu can serve as prime minister

People protest against Netanyahu being prime minister outside his residence in Jerusalem, May 3, 2020.
People protest against Netanyahu being prime minister outside his residence in Jerusalem, May 3, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
An Israeli man protests against Netanyahu serving as prime minister of Israel's new unity government.
An Israeli man protests against Netanyahu serving as prime minister of Israel's new unity government.PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM (BLOOMBERG) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form a government despite the corruption charges against him, the country's highest court ruled, a controversial decision that paves the way to ending more than a year of political stalemate closely linked to his legal woes.

Critics have said that Netanyahu's leadership of the nation while under indictment would compromise public norms. The unanimous court ruling on Wednesday (May 6) cleared a major obstacle to installing Israel's first permanent government since December 2018, even as the start of Netanyahu's criminal trial looms in late May.

Netanyahu and rival Benny Gantz set a May 13 date for swearing in the coalition.

Following two days of deliberations earlier this week, an expanded panel of 11 judges on the High Court of Justice rejected petitions seeking to block the premier from keeping his job.

"The indictment against a lawmaker does not prevent his being named to form a government, and by extension his appointment to lead it," they said in their decision.

The high court was asked to weigh in on Netanyahu's fitness to serve because Israeli law doesn't explicitly address whether a politician indicted on serious crimes can serve as prime minister.

Netanyahu will maintain his grip on power as faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust for allegedly illicitly accepting gifts and scheming to tilt legislation to benefit media moguls in exchange for favourable coverage.

He is scheduled to go on trial on May 24, after his handpicked justice minister ordered a two-month delay.

The justices also dismissed petitions seeking to strike down the power-sharing pact Netanyahu and Gantz signed last month, which the challengers said contained unconstitutional provisions. While it contains legal problems, "at this point there is no reason to intervene," they found.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, the main petitioner in both appeals to the court, said it would organise a demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday night whose theme will be "Israel is ashamed."

The Netanyahu-Gantz government "may be kosher but it stinks."

Under their agreement, Netanyahu and Gantz are to take turns as prime minister, with Netanyahu serving first.

Their plan for a two-headed administration came about after Gantz, a centrist former military chief, went back on his key campaign vow never to sit in a government headed by the scandal-tainted Netanyahu.

He reasoned that the country's leadership needed to close ranks to fight the ravages of the country's coronavirus outbreak and to avert another round of balloting.

Israel's political gridlock has gone hand in hand with Netanyahu's legal problems. He engineered multiple elections, gambling that staying in power would improve his legal prospects, either by allowing him to push through legislation shielding him from prosecution, or by giving him a stronger standing than an ordinary citizen.

The prime minister says he is the victim of a political witchhunt by leftists and journalists opposed to his nationalist agenda. He argued that a court ruling against him would violate the will of the electorate that voted for his Likud party and Gantz's Blue and White in Israel's third back-to-back election in March, and that the judiciary shouldn't weigh in on political matters.