Israel protests as court hears bids to stop Netanyahu rule

If the court voids Netanyahu's ability to serve as prime minister, Israel could be plunged into political chaos

TOPSHOT - Israelis mainly dressed in black and keeping a safe distance considereing the lingering coronavirus pandemic threat, take part in a demonstration in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on May 2, 2020, in favour of the Supreme Court to consider tomorrow to block the coalition government agreed between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz. If the expanded panel of 11 judges set to hear the case deems the coalition deal invalid, Israel may be forced to hold its fourth election in less than two years.  / AFP / JACK GUEZ
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Israel's top court Sunday started 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.

Either case carries with it the danger of forcing another election, after three polls in less than a year failed to produce a government and left the country in a grinding political deadlock.

"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 Covid-19 precautions.

The hearing was broadcast live on the court website.

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

But several groups, including opposition parties and democracy watchdogs, have petitioned the country's highest court to nullify the deal and bar Mr Netanyahu from leading the government, citing the criminal proceedings against him.

Responding to the petition, Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said there was no sufficient legal ground to disqualify Mr Netanyahu.

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.

Mr 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 has said that he is a victim of a political witch-hunt.

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

Israeli law says a prime minister under indictment is not obligated to step down until a final conviction.

Mr Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully accepting $264,000 worth of gifts from businessmen, which prosecutors said included cigars and champagne, and of promoting regulatory favours in alleged bids for improved coverage by a popular news website and Israel's best-selling newspaper.

If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison on bribery charges and a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust.

The coalition deal and Mr Netanyahu's upcoming corruption trials have triggered large protests in Tel Aviv's main square. Participants in the demonstrations observed social distance in accordance with public health regulations.

The petitions against Mr Netanyahu were filed by advocacy groups that have asked the high court to ban any indicted politician, including Mr Netanyahu, from being allowed to form a new government. They also say that parts of the coalition deal are illegal.

Eliad Shraga, head of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, one of the groups petitioning the court, said in a statement ahead of Sunday's proceedings that it was "unconscionable that a man like this 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."