Israel’s Supreme Court has begun hearing arguments to determine whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been indicted for corruption, will be allowed to form a new government.
The top 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.
“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 on Sunday.
“Tomorrow there will be a hearing on the second issue, regarding the coalition agreement,” she added, sitting at the head of a panel of 11 judges, all wearing face masks in line with coronavirus precautions.
The proceedings on Sunday came after hundreds of Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv the previous day to protest against Netanyahu’s recent coalition deal with Gantz.
A ruling against Netanyahu would likely trigger a snap election, the fourth since April 2019, as Israel grapples with the public health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic as well as its economic fallout.
Following three inconclusive elections, Netanyahu and Gantz last month signed an agreement to form a unity government under which they would take turns leading Israel.
In power for more than a decade and currently head of a caretaker government, right-wing 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 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 Netanyahu.
Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from Jerusalem near an anti-coalition sit-in, said the judges, apart from looking into the eligibility of Netanyahu to form a new government, would also investigate the “legality of the deal”.
This is because both Netanyahu and Gantz have “tried to engineer a deal that somehow safeguards each man’s position”, Fawcett said.
While judges have indicated that there is a “huge amount of political pressure and momentum” for a government to be formed after the three elections, they also seem to be exploring ways to try and limit some of that power, Fawcett said.
Some Israeli analysts have said the court was unlikely to bar Netanyahu from heading a new government.
Netanyahu 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 he is a victim of a political witch-hunt.
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.
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.