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Israel top court clears way for Netanyahu to form next gov’t

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Under the three-year deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for 18 months, with Gantz as his alternate, a new position in Israeli governance. AFP

Israel top court clears way for Netanyahu to form next gov’t

Israel's Supreme Court on Wednesday approved a coalition deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival-turned-ally Benny Gantz, paving the way for a unity government to be sworn in next week.

The alliance formed last month between the right-wing incumbent and his centrist challenger followed three inconclusive elections in less than a year.

Under the three-year deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for 18 months, with Gantz as his alternate, a new position in Israeli governance.

They will swap roles midway through the deal, with cabinet positions split between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White alliance, as well as their respective allies.

Israel has been without a stable government since December 2018 and the deal offers rare political stability as the country seeks to repair the economic damage wrought by the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 16,000 people in the country.

The pact’s opponents sought to torpedo it in court, arguing Netanyahu should be barred from forming a government while under criminal indictment and that certain provisions in the agreement broke the law.

But the Supreme Court ruled that “there was no legal reason to prevent the formation of a government” led by Netanyahu.

As the decision was delivered, Likud and Blue and White said in a joint statement that the new government would be sworn in on May 13.

Netanyahu has been charged with accepting improper gifts and illegally trading favours in exchange for positive media coverage.

He denies wrongdoing and his trial is set to start on May 24.

While Israeli law bars ministers from serving while under indictment, there is no such law for prime ministers.

Opponents of the deal had argued at a court hearing this week that Netanyahu is not currently a normal prime minister, but rather the caretaker leader of a transitional administration who is a candidate to form a government.

They claimed he should be barred from doing so due to the charges against him.

The judges said that while they were not seeking “to diminish the severity of the charges against Netanyahu”, they believed those could be addressed at his upcoming trial.

The deal’s opponents also mounted legal challenges against specific provisions in the Gantz-Netanyahu agreement.

Those included the creation of a government with a three-year mandate, instead of the traditional four, as well as a clause that defined the first six months of the government as an “emergency” phase tasked exclusively with confronting the pandemic.

Likud and Blue and White informed the court on Tuesday that they would adjust certain provisions.

The justices said that while the coalition agreement “raises significant legal difficulties, we have decided there is no room to intervene”.

Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit had advised the court that problematic clauses in the pact could be reviewed “at the implementation stage”.

Separately, lawmakers in Israel’s 120-seat had begun voting earlier on Wednesday on various bills to enact the coalition deal.

But individual votes were scheduled on each of the roughly 1,000 amendments proposed by the opposition, so a definitive outcome is not expected until Thursday.

The coalition appears to have the 61 votes needed for approval, counting Likud’s 36 Knesset seats, the 15 controlled by Gantz and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers who support Netanyahu.

Assuming the deal passes, parliament would then ask President Reuven Rivlin to give Netanyahu a formal mandate to form a government.

With a presidential mandate, Netanyahu would then be able to finalise his coalition, including ongoing haggling over cabinet jobs.

Former Gantz ally Yair Lapid, poised to become parliament’s opposition leader, blasted what he termed an excessive focus on ministerial positions.

“A single mother with two children who lives in a rented apartment and lost her job will be on the street next month” because of the pandemic, Lapid said. “That’s what we should be dealing with, not which politician gets which job.”

The same day, defence minister Naftali Bennett issued building permits for 7,000 new homes in a settlement near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, sparking Palestinian condemnation.

The ministry indicated that the land would allow the creation of a new neighbourhood called Givat Eitam.

“Construction momentum should not be stopped for a moment,” said Bennett.

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