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Israel's top court rules Netanyahu can form new government in historic decision

In a sign of the importance of the decisions, 11 supreme court justices heard the cases in comparison to the usual three- or five-judge panels.
Image: Poster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
An Israeli protester sits next to a poster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest by supporters of Netanyahu in front of Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem on May 3, 2020.Tsafrir Abayov / AP

All 11 justices in Israel’s top court agreed in a ruling Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form a new government while facing criminal indictments, a decision that appears certain to secure his grip on power.

The Supreme Court also dismissed a separate petition by the same opposition parties and pro-democracy groups that challenged Netanyahu's right to form a government. The second petition argued that last month’s coalition agreement between Netanyahu and his chief political rival, Benny Gantz, violated basic Israeli law.

The rulings, which allow Netanyahu to return for another term, had been framed as a seminal moment in Israeli history, with some arguing that an outcome in favor of Netanyahu would undermine public trust in government and others that a ruling against him would amount to political interference by the court.

Following the decision, Likud and Blue and White issued a joint statement saying that Netanyahu and Gantz have “concluded the establishment of the government” and said the swearing in ceremony would be May 13.

In a sign of the importance of the decisions, 11 Supreme Court justices heard the cases in contrast to the usual three-or five-judge panels.

The Supreme Court heard the first petition on Sunday, in which lawyers for the petitioner argued that as an indicted politician Netanyahu should not be given the authority to form a new government.

Netanyahu was indicted in November on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a politically orchestrated "witch hunt."

Netanyahu’s trial was scheduled to take place in March but was postponed after his interim justice minister placed restrictions on the court due to the coronavirus pandemic. Netanyahu is now set to stand trial on May 24.

The second petition heard Monday focused on the legality of Netanyahu and Gantz's agreement last month to form an emergency unity government. The deal seeks to change some of Israel’s basic laws to create, for example, the office of a “designated prime minister,” according to Suzie Navot, a professor of constitutional and parliamentary law at Haim Striks School of Law.

Had the court decided in favor of the petitioners in either case, the country would likely have been dragged into an unpopular fourth election.

Netanyahu and Gantz struck their agreement after three inconclusive national elections in the space of a year.

Under the unity deal, Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and the current leader of the caretaker government, will serve as prime minister for 18 months before handing power over to Gantz.