Jerusalem: Israel's prime minister urged the country's Supreme Court on Monday not to interfere in his efforts to build a coalition government, threatening that a decision against him could drag the country toward an unprecedented fourth straight election in just over a year.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his comments shortly after the court heard a second day of arguments in a series of legal challenges to the coalition deal.
The court's rulings, expected by the end of the week, will dictate whether Israel breaks out of its prolonged political paralysis with Netanyahu and his former political rival Benny Gantz joining forces in government, or whether the country is plunged into another election.
The court is looking into two key questions: whether a politician facing criminal corruption charges, such as Netanyahu, can form a new government; and whether his coalition deal with Gantz violated the law.
Speaking to reporters following a briefing on coronavirus developments, Netanyahu pressed the court not to get involved in the country's political affairs lest it risk forcing new elections.
"We hope the court doesn't interfere. It doesn't need to interfere. There is the will of the people, the clear expression of the will of the people," Netanyahu said.
If a court ruling picks apart the coalition deal, it "increases the chances that we will be dragged to fourth elections, something that will be a catastrophe," he said.
An unusually large panel of 11 justices, all wearing face masks and separated by plastic barriers, heard the case against the emerging coalition. Reflecting the case's importance, the court took the rare step of streaming the proceedings on its website and on national TV.
Since Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges last year, he has stepped up his attacks on the country's legal establishment and sought to portray himself as a victim.
Netanyahu and his allies have long considered the high court a liberal bastion that overreached its boundaries to meddle in political affairs, accusing it of undermining the will of the people as expressed in national elections.
His opponents regard the court as the final safeguard of Israeli democracy that has been under dangerous assault from demagogic populists.
After deadlocking in three closely contested election campaigns, Netanyahu and former military chief Gantz reached a deal last month in which they would be sworn in together for an emergency government ostensibly to battle the coronavirus and its economic fallout.
The deal calls for Netanyahu to serve first as prime minister and Gantz as the designated premier, with the two swapping posts after 18 months. The new position will enjoy all the trappings of the prime minister, including an official residence and - key for Netanyahu - an exemption from a law that requires all public officials, except the prime minister, to resign if charged with a crime.
The court will be asked to rule on this arrangement - and there is a sense of urgency as Thursday marks the deadline for presenting a new government before new elections are called.
Zeev Elkin, a Cabinet minister from Netanyahu's Likud party, warned that any court intervention could trigger a highly unpopular election.
"The coalition agreement is very complex. Moving a single brick could bring the entire structure down and force fourth elections," Elkin told Israel's Army Radio.
Attorney Dafna Holtz-Lechner, who represents one of the petitioners, countered that oversight was required precisely because "someone charged with criminal offenses is also the person who concocted the coalition agreement with all its repercussions for himself." Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals in which he is accused of offering favors to media moguls in exchange for favourable press coverage.
He denies the accusations and says he is the victim of a media-orchestrated witch hunt. His trial was postponed in March due to restrictions his hand-picked interim justice minister placed on the courts after the coronavirus crisis erupted. It is now scheduled to start later this month.
Netanyahu is eager to remain in office throughout his trial, using his position to lash out at the judicial system and rally support among his base. The coalition deal also gives him influence over key judicial appointments, creating a potential conflict of interest during an appeals process if he is convicted.
Netanyahu's attorneys, though, say he will refrain from getting involved in anything pertaining to his own case.
Israel's attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, said in an opinion to the court that while Netanyahu's indictments "raise significant problems," there was no legal basis for barring him from serving while facing criminal charges. But good governance groups have appealed against this, citing the precedent of forcing Cabinet ministers and mayors to resign if indicted.