JERUSALEM: 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.
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"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.
Neither Netanyahu, the right-wing premier in power since 2009, nor the centrist ex-military chief Gantz, was able after a March election to form a viable governing coalition in the deeply divided 120-seat Knesset.
They agreed to a power-sharing deal last month, aiming to avert a fourth poll that is opposed across the political spectrum.
- Netanyahu indictments -
Under the three-year coalition deal, the government's first six months will be dedicated primarily to combatting the novel coronavirus that has infected more than 16,000 Israelis and ravaged the economy.
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But eight separate petitions to the Supreme Court seek to declare the deal illegal, including one from former Gantz ally Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid.
Lapid broke with Gantz last month when the ex-military commander was elected parliament speaker and decided to pursue a deal with Netanyahu.
Hundreds of Israelis demonstrated against the deal in Tel Aviv on Saturday, the latest in a series of protests over a unity government.
Sunday's court session deals with indictments filed against Netanyahu in January.
The veteran premier has been charged with accepting improper gifts and illegally trading favours in exchange for favourable media coverage. He denies wrongdoing and his trial is set to start May 24.
Israeli law bars an indicted person from serving as an ordinary cabinet minister, but does not compel a criminally-charged prime minister to leave office.
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The complication regarding Netanyahu is that he is not currently an ordinary prime minister. He has been serving as the caretaker head of a transitional government through Israel's period of political deadlock.
According to some interpretations of Israeli law, that makes Netanyahu merely a candidate to become prime minister.
Interviewed on public radio Saturday, energy minister and Netanyahu ally Yuval Steinitz said that if the court rules Netanyahu cannot serve, it would amount to "an unprecedented attack on Israeli democracy".
The Gantz-Netanyahu agreement, Steinitz said, is "a necessity, the result of three election campaigns and a desire among Israelis to avoid a fourth election".
- The deal's terms -
The main argument against the coalition deal concerns specific provisions opponents say violate the law.
The agreement sees Netanyahu serving as prime minister for 18 months, with Gantz as his "alternate", a new title in Israeli governance.
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They will swap roles midway through the deal before likely taking voters back to the polls in 36 months.
But Israeli law traditionally endows governments with four-year mandates, an issue pounced on by the deal's opponents.
There is also a provision freezing certain public appointments during the government's initial six-month pandemic emergency phase, which critics also say is illegal.
An opinion delivered to the Supreme Court this week by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who indicted Netanyahu, said that while "certain arrangements in the coalition agreement raise major difficulties... at this time there are no grounds to disqualify (it)."
He advised that problematic provisions be reviewed "at the implementation stage".