Israel’s top court has ruled Benjamin Netanyahu can legally form a government while under criminal indictment for corruption, paving the way for him to be sworn in as prime minister next week.
The unanimous decision, released overnight, swatted down last-ditch attempts to end the career of the country’s longest-serving leader, who has fought for the past year to keep his seat in high office.
Judges were asked by eight petitioners, a mix of advocacy groups and opposition figures, to block Netanyahu because of his legal troubles. The court also assessed the legality of a controversial unity government deal Netanyahu agreed with his former-foe, Benny Gantz.
In its decision, the 11-judge panel expressed strong opposition to both Netanyahu’s continued rule and the coalition deal but said it would not get in the way of either.
“We did not find any legal reason to prevent MK (Member of Knesset) Netanyahu from forming a government,” the court said.
“The legal conclusion we reached does not diminish the severity of the pending charges against MK Netanyahu for violations of moral integrity and the difficulty derived from the tenure of a prime minister accused of criminal activity,” it added.
Famed for political wizardry even while ostensibly cornered, Netanyahu managed to convince Gantz, a former army chief who entered politics on the promise to oust Netanyahu, to do the exact opposite and join him instead.
The deal, agreed last month, envisions Netanyahu remaining in power for the first 18 months, after which Gantz would assume the role of prime minister for the next 18 months.
By signing the pact, Gantz lost significant credibility, not only from former supporters but also half his party legislators. In response, he argued the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic pushed him to agree to an “emergency government”.
The virus has infected about 16,300 Israelis, killed 239, and devastated the economy.
Without such a coalition deal, a crippling political paralysis that has seen the country hold three back-to-back elections within the timeframe of less than a year would have likely continued. A fourth election could have been held in late 2020.
In a joint statement, Netanyahu and Gantz said they would swear in the new government on Wednesday.
The two leaders must now pass legislation needed for their coalition deal and gather signatures from a majority of 61 lawmakers to elect Netanyahu as prime minister-designate.
Since the unity deal was announced, pro-democracy protests have taken place, calling on the courts to hold the government to account. The weekly protests have been held under tight restrictions, with each protester standing two metres apart and wearing masks.
This week’s hearing was broadcast live, unusual for Israeli cases, because coronavirus restrictions meant few were allowed to attend. Judges wore face masks, with clear plastic barriers separating them from each other.
Netanyahu’s upcoming trial – in which he faces damning charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust – was meant to begin last month but was postponed until 24 May owing to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus in courthouses.
The 70-year-old has denied any wrongdoing, describing the investigations as a “witch hunt”.