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Israel's top court hears petitions to bar Netanyahu from forming government

Ruling against Netanyahu would likely trigger snap election, fourth since April 2019, as country grapples with coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout
Israeli protesters watch Supreme Court deliberations broadcast live on giant screen outside Knesset (parliament) in Jerusalem on Sunday (AFP)

Israel's top court on Sunday began hearing arguments to bar Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a new government as he faces a criminal trial on corruption charges.

The Supreme Court will also hear petitions challenging a coalition deal with his rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz, who is currently speaker of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, AFP said.

"Today we shall hear arguments on the question of bestowing the duty of forming a government on a Knesset member against whom an indictment has been filed," Chief Justice Esther Hayut said as she opened proceedings.

"Tomorrow there will be a hearing on the second issue, regarding the coalition agreement," she said, sitting at the head of a panel of 11 judges, all wearing face masks in line with coronavirus precautions.

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The hearing was broadcast live on the court website. 

A ruling against Netanyahu would likely trigger a snap election, the fourth since April 2019, as the country grapples with the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout, according to Reuters.

Netanyahu and Gantz signed an agreement last month to form a unity government under which they would take turns leading Israel after three elections that neither of them won.

Still, eight separate petitions to the Supreme Court seek to declare the deal illegal, including one from former Gantz ally Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid. 

Lapid broke with Gantz last month when the ex-military commander was elected parliament speaker and decided to pursue a deal with Netanyahu.

In power for more than a decade and currently head of a caretaker government, right-wing Netanyahu is to serve as prime minister of a new administration for 18 months before handing the reins to centrist Gantz, according to the unity deal.

The pact has support from a majority in parliament. But several groups, including opposition parties and democracy watchdogs, have petitioned Israel's highest court to nullify the deal and bar Netanyahu from leading the government, citing the criminal proceedings against him.

Responding to the petition, Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit wrote to the court saying that there were no sufficient legal grounds to disqualify Netanyahu.

He described the case as a "head-on collision" between "on one side the most basic democratic principle of honouring the will of the majority ... on the other integrity in public service, specifically among elected officials."

A small group outside the court, following social distancing guidelines, carried signs and Israeli flags to protest against government corruption.

Demonstrator Tmira Stareck said that Netanyahu’s unsuitability for another term was so blatant that there should be no need for a court hearing.

"The very fact that we even need to discuss the obvious issue - a criminally-charged man forming a government - is already a failure, it's already abnormal," she told AFP in Hebrew.

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"Would you hire someone who is criminally charged? No. You wouldn't even let him be the school janitor.”

Some Israeli analysts have said the court, cast by Netanyahu loyalists as liberal and interventionist, was unlikely to bar the premier from heading a new government.

A ruling is expected to be announced by Thursday.

Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, was indicted in January on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies any wrongdoing in all three cases against him and says he is a victim of a political witch-hunt.

Netanyahu's trial is due to start on 24 May.

Israeli law says a prime minister under indictment is not obligated to step down until a final conviction. But some legal experts say there are legal precedents suggesting elected officials indicted with charges that carry moral turpitude should resign.