It wasn’t long ago that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had Israel’s High Court firmly in his crosshairs. His bloc of right-wing and religious allies, too, would consistently hammer away at the court. One minister accused it of “impertinence” and “contempt.” A deputy minister said it was trying to establish a “judicial dictatorship.” There were frequent calls to simply ignore court rulings.
Now, though, it is the High Court that has cemented Netanyahu’s election victory and paved the way for him to hold on to the leadership of the country. In a unanimous decision, an expanded panel of 11 justices ruled this week that an indicted member of Knesset could be given the mandate to form a government. And that’s exactly what happened late Thursday afternoon, when President Reuven Rivlin gave Netanyahu two weeks to put the finishing touches to his planned government with one-time opponent Benny Gantz. Both men have indicated they won’t need that long, with a swearing-in ceremony penciled in for next Wednesday.
No longer will Netanyahu be the leader of a transitional government plowing its way through three consecutive elections. Barring any frankly unforeseen obstacles, he will once again be Israel’s sitting prime minister, this time with the backing of at least 72 members of the 120-seat parliament, making this the widest, strongest coalition he has ever led – at least on paper.
The High Court did not downplay at all the weight of the charges against Netanyahu – bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases – but concluded that the law does not specifically prevent an indicted member of Knesset from leading the country. An indicted prime minister only has to step down when he is convicted, and only after that conviction is upheld through the appeals process.
“The judicial conclusion that we reached does not diminish the severity of the pending charges against Member of Knesset Netanyahu for criminal violations, nor from the difficulties arising from having a Prime Minister accused of crimes,” Chief Justice Esther Hayut wrote in the ruling.
Netanyahu, who failed to secure a clear majority for his preferred right-wing religious bloc in all three elections, has nevertheless emerged from this stronger, once again silencing those critics who predicted his imminent demise. In the coalition agreement signed with Gantz’s Blue and White party, Netanyahu held to most of his campaign promises. He can pursue annexation of parts of the West Bank from the beginning of July. He has control over the judge’s selection committee, giving him tremendous influence over the justice system. And crucially, he remains in power.
By contrast, Gantz folded on virtually all of his campaign promises. He had promised not to serve under an indicted prime minister, swore he would change controversial legislation about the character of the state of Israel, as well as fix the draft law, so long a pressure point between the secular and ultra-religious parts of the country. He also vowed he would not pursue unilateral annexation and made it his goal to fix the healthcare system. None of that is still standing now.
Not even his Blue and White party survived intact, fracturing as soon as Gantz announced he would serve under Netanyahu. The country’s longest serving PM got nearly everything he wanted, while Gantz just got a line from his campaign jingle: Israel before everything – which was also his explanation for abandoning his campaign promises and core principles.
Realistically, by the time April turned into May, all realistic outcomes seemed to serve Netanyahu in one way or another. If the High Court ruled in his favor as it did, then he could continue as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. If the High Court ruled against him, he could take the country to a fourth round of elections where he was heavily favored for an outright victory against a crumbling opposition. In that scenario, Netanyahu could well have held enough seats to pass an override clause against the High Court, effectively allowing the government to push aside any rulings against it.
According to the coalition agreement, Gantz is supposed to become prime minister in 18 months. But many political analysts are skeptical that Netanyahu will ever willingly vacate the seat he has held for more than a decade. The agreement itself tries to anchor the rotation in Israeli law. Many observers argue that the complexity of the arrangement – and the penalties should either side break it – shows the depth of distrust that exists between Netanyahu and Gantz. As Yair Lapid, Gantz’s former political partner in Blue and White, said Thursday evening, “They call it an emergency government when the emergency is over. They talk about unity, but don’t trust one another.”
The expected swearing in of Netanyahu’s government next week does not mean the legal fight is over. On Thursday, the Knesset finished passing the necessary changes to Israel’s laws to allow for the coalition agreement. In its decision Wednesday evening, the High Court said it would not yet rule on the legality of the agreement itself until the relevant laws were passed. Already, opponents of the new government have filed petitions asking the court to disqualify parts of the agreement approved by lawmakers on Thursday. Although it seems unlikely at this stage, the coalition could yet collapse before it has properly begun, sending the country back to the ballot boxes.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s corruption trial is set to start on May 24. The prime minister has denied wrongdoing, calling the cases an “attempted coup.” After years of police investigations and legal wrangling, the trial was delayed again when the judicial system was put on an emergency footing because of the coronavirus. Now, more than three years after the investigations were made public, Netanyahu will have his first day in court. Once again, his fate will be back in the hands of the country’s judges.