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Israeli high court begins hearing petitions against Netanyahu's premiership

Israeli women wearing protective masks lift a placard with a picture of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz, during a demonstration against the former in front of his residence in Jerusalem, on May 3, 2020. (Photo by AFP)

Israel's top court has commenced hearing arguments to determine whether prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been indicted for corruption, will be allowed to form a coalition government.

On Sunday, Israel’s Supreme Court, in a rare move, appointed an expanded panel comprising 11 of the court's 15 justices to hear petitions demanding that the incumbent premier be disqualified from forming a new administration over his criminal charges.

The session was broadcast live due to its significance.

Netanyahu fell short of securing enough seats in the Knesset to form a majority administration in three previous elections –in April and September 2019 and in March this year – and ultimately reached an agreement with his close rival, ex-military chief Benny Gantz, to form a unity administration last month.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving premier, is under criminal indictment in three corruption cases, including bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which could bar him from staying in power.

If convicted of bribery, Netanyahu could face ten years in prison and three years for the other offenses.

Pro-democracy protesters, on Sunday, called on the court to hold the government to account. The protesters gathered outside the prime minister’s residence in the occupied Jerusalem al-Quds as the court convened. There have been protests against Netanyahu in recent week.

If the court rules against Netanyahu after the two-day hearing, a snap election – a fourth vote since April last year - will be held to help the regime exit the months-long political paralysis as it grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout.    

According to the Netanyahu-Gantz power sharing agreement, Netanyahu will serve as premier of a new administration for 18 months before handing the reins to Gantz. 

Although the pact drew support from a majority of the Knesset, several groups, including opposition parties and right watchdogs, have petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to nullify the agreement and prevent Netanyahu from leading the new administration, citing his indictment on criminal charges.

Responding to the petition, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit wrote to the court, saying that there was no adequate legal ground to bar the premier from staying in power.

He described the case as a “head-on collision” between “on one side the most basic democratic principle of honoring the will of the majority ... (and) on the other integrity in public service, specifically among elected officials.”

Netanyahu claims that he is a victim of an alleged political witch-hunt.

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