Ruling on whether indicted PM can return to role delayed until after March election
Associated Press in Jerusalem
The supreme court in Israel has declined to weigh in on whether Benjamin Netanyahu can return to his post as prime minister now that he has been indicted, postponing any ruling on his political future until after March elections.
A three-judge panel said while the question of whether an indicted member of parliament could form a government was important, it would be premature to rule on the issue before the vote.
The court had been widely expected to delay any ruling. Declaring Netanyahu ineligible would have triggered a political crisis and exacerbated strained ties between the government and the judiciary.
Netanyahu was indicted in November on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Israeli cabinet members are required to resign if indicted, but the rule does not apply to the prime minister.
He has continued serving as caretaker prime minister after failing to form a government after unprecedented back-to-back elections last year.
Netanyahu has dismissed the corruption cases against him as an “attempted coup” and warned against any judicial intervention. He said only the voters could choose the country’s leader.
There are no restrictions on Netanyahu running in the election on 2 March – the third in less than a year. But a petition, filed by governance groups, contended that having a prime minister under indictment would constitute a conflict of interest. Others have argued that voters have the right to know before the election if Netanyahu is eligible to be prime minister.
The court said the election campaign period was “a realm of uncertainty” and that it remained to be seen who the president would select to form a government.
The judges said that in light of the “most sensitive and complicated period the state of Israel is in at this time”, it decided to “act with restraint and moderation” and dismiss the petition for the time being.
The decision came a day after Netanyahu announced that he would seek immunity from prosecution, in effect delaying any trial until after a new government is formed.
Netanyahu hopes to win big in March and assemble a 61-seat majority in favour of immunity. But polls predict another split decision that would prolong the country’s political limbo.
September’s election left Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party in a virtual tie with the centrist Blue and White, led by former army chief-of-staff Benny Gantz. Neither was able to assemble a majority with its natural allies, and efforts to form a unity government collapsed in large part because of Netanyahu’s legal woes.
Netanyahu, who was re-elected leader of the ruling Likud party last week, has long accused judicial and law enforcement officials of trying to drive him from office. His allies have issued stern warnings against what they call an “activist” court overstepping its authority and a few dozen pro-Netanyahu protesters convened outside the court in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has been in power for more than a decade and is Israel’s longest-serving leader. He is also Israel’s first sitting prime minister to be charged with a crime. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was forced to resign a decade ago ahead of a corruption indictment that later sent him to prison for 16 months.