Archive for the ‘ The Zionism Plague ’ Category

Israel’s Netanyahu attacks justice system as trial begins

May 24, 2020

JERUSALEM (AP) — To the sounds of his impassioned supporters chanting outside, a defiant Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strode into a Jerusalem courtroom Sunday to face corruption charges in a long-awaited trial that has overshadowed three inconclusive elections and deeply divided the country.

As he entered the courthouse to become the country’s first sitting prime minister to go on trial, Netanyahu launched into a lengthy tirade against the nation’s justice system in which he accused police, prosecutors, judges and the media of a deep state-type conspiracy aimed to oust him against the will of the people.

“I stand before you with a straight back and head raised high,” he said, surrounded by leading Cabinet ministers of his Likud party. “The objective is to depose a strong, right-wing prime minister, and thus remove the nationalist camp from the leadership of the country for many years.”

The standoff, and Netanyahu’s own fiery rhetoric, looked to worsen the nation’s deep divisions just after Netanyahu swore in what he called a “unity” government with a former rival. Critics have said Netanyahu’s repeated attacks on the legal system risk irreversible damage to citizens’ faith in state institutions.

Outside the courthouse, hundreds of supporters rallied in his defense, packing a narrow street while waving Israeli flags and banners denouncing what they called a corrupt prosecution seeking to topple a leader of historic proportion. Others gathered at his official residence to demonstrate against what they called a “crime minister” and carried posters calling for his resignation. They faced off across police barricades with more of the prime minister’s backers.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of corruption cases stemming from ties to wealthy friends. He is accused of accepting lavish gifts and offering to grant favors to powerful media moguls in exchange for favorable coverage of him and his family. He denies the charges, which come after years of scandals swirling around the family.

Netanyahu entered the Jerusalem courtroom wearing a blue surgical mask, following public health restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. He refused to sit until TV cameras left the room, and remained in the front row throughout the session.

During the proceedings, the lawyers and judges also wore masks, with the three-judge panel sitting behind a glass divider. In a hint of what could lie ahead, his lawyer said the defense would need several months to study the hundreds of reams of evidence and to build its legal team.

Netanyahu did not speak during the one-hour session, rising just once to confirm he understood the charges. He will not be required to attend future hearings during a case that legal analysts expect to stretch over several years. The next hearing was scheduled for July 19.

Before the session, Netanyahu said police and prosecutors had conspired “to stitch up” a case against him, and said the evidence was “contaminated” and exaggerated. He called for the court proceedings to be broadcast live on TV to ensure “full transparency.”

“While the media continues to deal with nonsense, with these false, trumped up cases, I will continue to lead the state of Israel and deal with issues that really matter to you,” he said, including efforts to resuscitate the economy and prepare for a possible second wave of the coronavirus.

Netanyahu is not the first prime minister to go on trial. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, went to prison for corruption but resigned long before the trial. Netanyahu’s fitness for office was the key issue in the three deadlocked elections over the past year. After vowing never to sit with an indicted prime minister, Netanyahu’s challenger, Benny Gantz, agreed in March to form a power-sharing coalition with his rival, in part to prevent another election.

Gantz, who has made the defense of the legal system one his hallmarks, said he was sure Netanyahu would receive a fair trial. “I repeat and emphasize that my colleagues and I have full faith in the justice system and law enforcement,” he tweeted.

Their new government was sworn in just last week for Netanyahu’s fourth consecutive term. Netanyahu held his first Cabinet meeting with the new government just hours before heading to court. Neither he nor any of his ministers addressed the looming trial.

Netanyahu and his allies have spent months lashing out at the law enforcement system, and a new round of attacks could test the new government. Dozens of Netanyahu supporters outside the court in east Jerusalem wore masks and T-shirts depicting Netanyahu as a martyr and held posters lambasting the attorney general who indicted him.

“We won’t allow an image of Netanyahu being humiliated,” said Ran Carmi Buzaglo, one of the protesters. “The only reason that they forced him to come here, even though the law allows him to be absent, is to show an image of him in the defendant’s chair.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who recently filed a police complaint following anonymous threats against him, vowed that the case will be handled like any other — “in a professional, business-like manner and within the courtroom halls.”

“We will continue to act without fear, even against the preposterous attempts to associate non-professional interests to law enforcement agencies,” he said. Several of Netanyahu’s Likud Cabinet ministers, including the newly appointed internal security minister who overseas the police, came to the court to back him.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said that Netanyahu’s “wild and inciteful outburst” at the courthouse was “final proof that a criminal defendant cannot continue to be prime minister.” In a sign of the tensions, the prosecutor in the case left the courtroom accompanied by a state-issued bodyguard because of threats against her.

Under the coalition deal, Netanyahu will remain prime minister for the next 18 months, and “alternative prime minister” for the 18 months after. He will not be legally required to step down during what is expected to be a lengthy trial.

Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion contributed to this report.

Israel’s Netanyahu, unbeaten in elections, is going on trial

May 23, 2020

JERUSALEM (AP) — After entering the record books last year as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu will once again make history when he becomes the country’s first sitting leader to go on trial.

Surrounded by security guards, Netanyahu is set to march into Jerusalem’s district court for arraignment on a series of corruption charges on Sunday. The stunning scene will push Israel into uncharted political and legal territory, launching a process that could ultimately end the career of a leader who has been undefeatable at the ballot box for over a decade.

Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of cases. He is accused of accepting expensive gifts, such as cartons of champagne and cigars, from wealthy friends and offering favors to media moguls in exchange for favorable news coverage of him and his family.

In the most serious case, he is accused of promoting legislation that delivered hundreds of millions of dollars of profits to the owner of a major telecom company while wielding behind-the-scenes editorial influence over the firm’s popular news website.

Netanyahu has denied the charges, claiming he is the victim of an “attempted coup” by overaggressive police, biased prosecutors and a hostile media. “It’s the classic deep state argument,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Israel’s Hebrew University. Netanyahu claims “an unelected movement is trying to remove him from power just because he is a representative of the right,” she said.

Netanyahu is not the first Israeli leader to go on trial. Both former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former President Moshe Katsav went to prison in the 2010s — Olmert on corruption charges and Katsav for rape. But they stepped down to fight the charges.

As opposition leader in 2008, Netanyahu led the calls for Olmert to leave office, famously saying a leader “up to his neck” in legal troubles had no business governing a country. But as the investigations have piled up, culminating with his indictment last November, Netanyahu has changed his tune. He has rejected calls to resign while repeatedly lashing out at the country’s legal system.

Among his favorite targets have been a former police chief and the current attorney general — both Netanyahu appointees — and the country’s Supreme Court. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit recently filed a complaint to police over anonymous threats sent to his mobile phone.

Netanyahu’s conspiratorial claims of victimhood have played well with his base of religious and nationalist supporters. But it is unclear whether they will hold up in court, given the lack of evidence.

In the courtroom, the legal arguments are more likely to focus on his claims that his gifts were genuine shows of affection from close friends and that he never received anything in return for the favors he is accused of offering.

The case is expected to last for several years, given the vast number of witnesses and documents that are expected to be presented. Netanyahu has done his best to avoid this moment. During a three-year investigation, which was slowed by Netanyahu’s trips abroad and occasional security crises, he repeatedly claimed that investigators would “find nothing because there is nothing.”

He briefly tried, but failed, to win parliamentary immunity from prosecution. In March, his hand-picked justice minister delayed the trial by two months, citing coronavirus restrictions. This week, judges rejected Netanyahu’s request to stay home on Sunday and allow his lawyers to represent him. Netanyahu had argued that his presence was unnecessary and costly, and that having his security detail in the courtroom would violate social-distancing requirements.

Nonetheless, he enters the courtroom with renewed strength. After three bruising elections over the past year, Netanyahu was sworn into office this week for a fourth consecutive term. All three elections were seen as referendums on his fitness for office, and all ended in deadlock. After the most recent vote in March, his rival, Benny Gantz, appeared to have mustered enough support in parliament to pass legislation that would have disqualified Netanyahu from serving as prime minister while under indictment.

But in a stunning turnaround, Gantz, citing fears of a fourth expensive election and the coronavirus pandemic, agreed to shelve the legislation and instead form a power-sharing government with Netanyahu.

The Supreme Court cleared the way for Netanyahu to remain in power. In a key ruling, it said an indicted politician may serve as prime minister — even though Israeli law requires all other office-holders to resign if charged with a crime.

Under their deal, Netanyahu was forced to yield some powers to Gantz, with each wielding a veto over most key decisions. Gantz will hold the title of “alternate prime minister,” and after 18 months, they will swap jobs.

Talshir, the political scientist, said the agreement creates troubling conflicts of interest. Netanyahu made sure he would be involved in the appointments of key officials, including Supreme Court judges and the next attorney general, who could influence any appeals process.

“Netanyahu’s perspective all this year was interfering with his own trial,” she said. Under the deal, the alternate prime minister, like the premier, will not be required to resign due to criminal charges. That could ensure that Netanyahu remains in office throughout his trial and even into a possible appeals process.

It will also give him the opportunity to continue to attack the legal system. Netanyahu’s eldest son Yair, who often acts as his unofficial spokesman, posted a profile picture on Twitter that spells the word “prosecution” with a sewing machine as the first letter. The message: the case against the prime minister is unfairly “stitched up.”

Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, said such attacks on the courts have caused great damage by persuading many Israelis to question the authority and integrity of Israel’s democratic institutions.

“It might be the most harmful thing that has happened to Israel’s democracy, this one and a half years of attacking the whole basis of the rule of law,” he said. “I hope we will have a long rehabilitation from that. But we’re not even in the start of it.”

20 years after withdrawal, Israel, Hezbollah brace for war

May 20, 2020

KFAR CHOUBA, Lebanon (AP) — Twenty years after Hezbollah guerrillas pushed Israel’s last troops from southern Lebanon, both sides are gearing up for a possible war that neither seems to want. Israeli troops are striking Hezbollah targets in neighboring Syria and drilling for what could be an invasion of Lebanon. The militant Hezbollah group is beefing up its own forces and threatening to invade Israel if provoked. The bitter enemies routinely exchange warnings and threats.

“We are preparing seriously for the next war. We’re not taking any shortcuts because we understand we have to be extremely strong to defeat the enemy,” said Col. Israel Friedler, an Israeli commander who has been overseeing a weeks-long exercise simulating war with Hezbollah at a base in northern Israel.

Hezbollah emerged as a ragtag guerrilla group in the 1980s, funded by Iran to battle Israeli troops occupying southern Lebanon. A protracted guerrilla war, characterized by roadside bombs and sniper attacks, eventually forced Israel to withdraw in May 2000. With the exception of an inconclusive, monthlong war in 2006, the volatile frontier has largely remained calm.

Since then, Hezbollah has evolved into the most powerful military and political entity in Lebanon. The party and its allies dominate Lebanon’s parliament and are the main power behind Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government.

“Domestically, Hezbollah has emerged to become the preponderant force in Lebanon,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. But regionally, he said, “the position of Hezbollah is precarious” due to Israeli pressure, domestic turmoil and problems for its Iranian benefactors.

The group can ill afford another massive clash with Israel. The Lebanese economy is in shambles, around half the population is now estimated to live in poverty — including in Hezbollah strongholds — and the group’s finances are suffering because of U.S. sanctions imposed on it and Iran. The group also suffered heavy losses in the Syrian civil war, losing some 2,000 fighters while battling alongside the forces of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. Once seen as a liberation movement, Hezbollah is now seen by many in Lebanon and the region as an Iranian pawn.

Qassim Qassir, an expert on Hezbollah, says the group has no interest in going to war but has been preparing for battle for a long time. “The battle will not be a battle of missiles only,” he said, a reference that Hezbollah might try to invade parts of northern Israel.

In a region filled with adversaries, Israel considers Hezbollah to be its toughest and most immediate threat. During the 2006 war, the group launched some 4,000 rockets into Israel, most of them unguided projectiles with limited ranges. Today, Israeli officials say Hezbollah possesses some 130,000 rockets and missiles capable of striking virtually anywhere in Israel. They say it has sophisticated anti-tank missiles, night-vision equipment and cyber warfare capabilities.

Hezbollah operates along the border, in violation of the U.N. cease-fire that ended the 2006 war. It also has established a presence in southern Syria, near the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, providing an additional front in a future war. Most critically, Israel believes Hezbollah is trying to develop and build precision-guided missiles.

Sheikh Ali Daamoush, a top Hezbollah official, claimed the Israelis are afraid of Hezbollah’s missile program. “The Israelis should be worried and scared because the resistance now has the will, intention, capabilities and force to make Israel face a great defeat in any coming confrontation,” he said.

That confrontation may come sooner than anticipated. Israel has acknowledged carrying out scores of airstrikes in neighboring Syria in recent years, most of them believed to have been aimed at stopping Iranian arms shipments or missile technology for Hezbollah.

Syria has accused Israel of carrying out at least seven airstrikes in the past two months alone, believed to have targeted Iranian and proxy interests. Israeli warplanes and reconnaissance drones have been violating Lebanese airspace on almost daily basis in recent weeks.

Israeli officials say that neither Iran’s troubles — including the coronavirus crisis, plunging oil prices and U.S. sanctions — nor Lebanon’s domestic problems have changed Hezbollah’s behavior. They point to a recent attempt by Hezbollah to fly a drone into Israeli airspace and an incident last month in which alleged Hezbollah operatives damaged a fence along the Israeli-Lebanese frontier.

The Lebanese border town of Kfar Chouba, overseen by three Israeli positions, was quiet Wednesday, three days after Israeli troops shot and wounded a Syrian shepherd who had crossed into Israeli-held territory. The area is a disputed enclave along the frontier between Israel, Syria and Lebanon, where tensions often play out.

In recent weeks, tens of thousands of Israeli troops have been participating in a massive exercise at the Elyakim military base. On a recent day, four Israeli tanks rumbled up to the edge of a ridge and fired powerful 120-millimeter shells streaking across the valley, scoring direct hits on targets several kilometers (miles) away. Ground troops maneuvered through a mock Lebanese village. Air force, navy and cyber units joined the drill.

Friedler, the Israeli commander, said if there is another war, Israel will have no choice but to cross the border to halt Hezbollah fire. He said battling an enemy entrenched in civilian areas is like “fighting with handcuffs on,” but insisted that his troops are ready.

“It won’t be easy. But without a doubt it will be much harder for them. They don’t have the means to stop us,” Friedler said. Hezbollah has also vowed to cross into Israel in any future war. In late 2018, Israel uncovered and later destroyed what it said was a network of cross-border tunnels.

Despite these tensions, residents along Israel’s northern border say that life has greatly improved since Israel withdrew from its self-declared “security zone” two decades ago. Nisim Shtern, a farmer in the northern Israeli border town of Kerem Ben Zimar, spent time in southern Lebanon as a soldier in the mid-1980s and remembers times when Katyusha rockets rained down on the area.

Shtern, who grows pomegranates and wine grapes in his orchards, says day-to-day life is good, but that some residents still get jittery. Even so, he said Israel made the right decision to withdraw. He said he trusts the army to take quick and decisive action whenever needed.

“We need to strike them hard and get out,” he said. “If there’s a problem, take care of it with maximum force.”

Federman reported from Elyakim Military Base, Israel.

Jordan warns Israel of ‘massive conflict’ over annexation

May 15, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — Jordan’s king warned Israel of a “massive conflict” if it proceeds with plans to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank, as European Union foreign ministers agreed on Friday to step up diplomatic efforts to try to head off such a move.

Israel has vowed to annex Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley, which could spell the end of the long-stalled peace process by making it virtually impossible to establish a viable Palestinian state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has moved a step closer by reaching an agreement to form a government after more than a year of political deadlock.

President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan, which overwhelmingly favors Israel and was rejected by the Palestinians, gave a green light to annexation, but most of the rest of the international community is strongly opposed.

“Leaders who advocate a one-state solution do not understand what that would mean,” Jordan’s King Abdullah II said in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel published Friday. “What would happen if the Palestinian National Authority collapsed? There would be more chaos and extremism in the region. If Israel really annexed the West Bank in July, it would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” he said.

Jordan is a close Western ally and one of only two Arab states to have signed a peace treaty with Israel. Abdullah declined to say whether annexation would threaten that agreement. “I don’t want to make threats and create an atmosphere of loggerheads, but we are considering all options. We agree with many countries in Europe and the international community that the law of strength should not apply in the Middle East,” he said.

At a video-conference, EU foreign ministers reaffirmed their support for a two-state solution and opposition to any annexation. The ministers, whose countries are deeply divided in their approach to Israel, agreed to ramp up diplomatic efforts in coming days with Israel, the Palestinians, the United States and Arab countries.

“We reaffirm our position in support of a negotiated, two-state solution. For this to be possible, unilateral action from either side should be avoided and, for sure, international law should be upheld,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after chairing the meeting.

“We must work to discourage any possible initiative toward annexation,” Borrell told reporters in Brussels. “International law has to be upheld. Here, and there, and everywhere.” He made no mention of the use of sanctions, saying only that the EU will use “all our diplomatic capacities in order to prevent any kind of unilateral action.”

The ministers had planned to welcome the formation of a new Israeli government and offer the bloc’s cooperation, but Netanyahu and his rival-turned-partner, Benny Gantz, have postponed the swearing-in of their controversial new Cabinet as the Israeli leader tries to quell infighting within his Likud party.

The ceremony, originally scheduled for Thursday, is now planned for Sunday to give Netanyahu more time to hand out coveted Cabinet appointments to members of his party. Their coalition agreement allows him to present an annexation proposal as soon as July 1.

The EU has long been committed to a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, with the possibility of mutually agreed land-swaps. Israel seized east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war. The Palestinians want all three to form their future state.

The bloc has already rejected Trump’s Mideast plan, which would allow Israel to annex about a third of the West Bank, leaving the Palestinians with heavily conditioned statehood in scattered territorial enclaves surrounded by Israel.

“In our opinion, an annexation is not compatible with international law,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Friday. “From our point of view, changes to borders must, if at all, be the result of negotiations and happen in agreement between both sides.”

Jordan has been lobbying the EU to take “practical steps” to make sure annexation doesn’t happen. In a statement, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi “stressed the need for the international community and the European Union in particular to take practical steps that reflect the rejection of any Israeli decision to annex.”

Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin and Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Israel swears in new government after 3 deadlocked elections

May 14, 2020

JERUSALEM (AP) — After three deadlocked and divisive elections, and a year and a half of political paralysis, Israel was finally swearing in a new government on Thursday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu securing a historic fifth term in office thanks to a controversial power-sharing deal with rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz.

Netanyahu and Gantz, a former military chief, announced last month they would be putting their differences and animosity aside after three hard-fought campaigns to join forces to steer the country through the coronavirus crisis and its severe economic fallout.

It came at the price of the dissolution of Gantz’s Blue and White party and reneging on his key campaign promise not to serve under Netanyahu, who has been indicted of corruption charges and faces an upcoming criminal trial. Their much-scrutinized coalition deal, resulting in the most bloated government in Israeli history and potential clauses to help Netanyahu cling to power, could only come about after the country’s Supreme Court ruled it had no legal grounds to block it.

Despite the criticism, Gantz argued that teaming with Netanyahu offered the country its only way out of the prolonged stalemate and prevented Israel from being dragged once again to another costly election that would have been its fourth in just over a year.

The ceremony at parliament introducing the country’s 35th government is set to kick off late Thursday, under strict social distancing guidelines. Last-minute jockeying Thursday over Cabinet appointments could delay the event.

The deal calls for Netanyahu to serve as prime minister for the government’s first 18 months before being replaced by Gantz for the next 18 months, with their blocs having a similar number of ministers and virtual veto power over the other’s major decisions.

Yohanan Plesner, president of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute, said that the main achievement was the mere fact that it should allow the government to resume functioning after the longest political deadlock in Israeli history. But he said the deep distrust between the opposing camps following a prolonged campaign of aggressive, even violent, rhetoric left doubts on how they could govern together.

“The jury is still out if indeed the political deadlock is over and if we have a broad government that will exercise its authority,” he said. “The main tests of the new government are the paralysis test and the reconciliation test.”

Gantz will start out as defense minister, with party colleague and fellow retired military chief Gabi Ashkenazi serving as foreign minister. Netanyahu’s top deputy in Likud, outgoing Foreign Minister Israel Katz, will become finance minister. Yariv Levin, perhaps Netanyahu’s closest ally, will become the new parliament speaker. The coalition will also include a pair of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and some other individual defectors to add up to 73 out of parliament’s 120 members.

The main point of contention for critics has been the newly created position of “alternate prime minister,” a post that could allow Netanyahu to remain in office even after the swap and throughout his corruption trial and a potential appeals process. There are also deep suspicions about whether Netanyahu will keep his part of the bargain and ultimately cede the premiership to Gantz.

Still, the new position is supposed to enjoy all the trappings of the prime minister, including an official residence and, key for Netanyahu, an exemption from a law that requires public officials who are not prime minister to resign if charged with a crime.

Netanyahu has been indicted with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving trading favors with wealthy media moguls. He denies any wrongdoing and blames the charges on a media-orchestrated plot to oust him. Since his indictment last fall he has repeatedly lashed out at the country’s legal system as well, with his political allies taking special aim at the high court and accusing it of overreach and political interference. His legal woes and fitness to serve were central issues in the recent election campaigns.

Another hot topic will be Netanyahu’s intention to introduce Israeli plans to annex large parts of the West Bank as early as this summer. The coalition agreement allows him to present an annexation proposal as soon as July 1. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived Wednesday for a lightening-quick visit to discuss it as part of a Trump Mideast plan that envisions handing 30% of the West Bank to permanent Israeli control.

The Palestinians claim the entire West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as the heartland of an independent state. Annexing chunks of this territory would likely put an end to the Palestinians’ already diminishing hopes of a two-state solution and would anger the international community, which overwhelmingly supports Palestinian statehood.

Gantz says he will only support such a move with international backing. By including two members of the more dovish Labor party in his bloc, he looks to be tempering the ambitions of Netanyahu’s nationalist base to push for annexation before the U.S. elections in November — after which Trump could be replaced by Joe Biden, who has said he opposes unilateral annexation.

Netanyahu’s plan also took a setback when his longtime religious nationalist allies, the pro-settler Yemina party, opted not to join the coalition after Netanyahu rejected its demands for key spots. Naftali Bennett, the outgoing defense minister, said in a Facebook post that Netanyahu “chose to get rid of Yemina, which was his nationalist backbone,” and that his party would serve the country from the opposition instead.

Still, Netanyahu looks to have a parliamentary majority for annexation if it comes up for a vote.

Israel’s high court to hear petitions against Netanyahu rule

May 03, 2020

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s high court was set Sunday to begin hearing petitions against Benjamin Netanyahu forming a government while facing criminal indictments. The proceedings, held by an exceptionally large panel of 11 justices and in a rare instance to also be broadcast live, will focus on the issue of whether an politician can form a government while under indictment — something the Israeli legal code does not explicitly prohibit.

If the court voids Netanyahu’s ability to serve as prime minister, Israel could be plunged into political chaos, and it would likely trigger the country’s fourth consecutive election in just over 12 months.

The high court has become a lightning rod for criticism by Netanyahu and his political allies, who accuse it of overreach and political interference, while the long-time leader’s opponents consider it a bastion of democracy under dangerous assault.

Pro-democracy demonstrators have been taking to the streets weekly to protest Netanyahu’s continued rule. Last week, counter-protesters against the court demonstrated against its hearing the petitions against Netanyahu’s rule.

In an unprecedented move, Sunday’s hearing would be broadcast live on the high court’s website while most of the country remains under coronavirus movement restrictions. Netanyahu was indicted earlier this year on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. He has denied any wrongdoing. His trial was postponed due to restrictions his hand-picked interim justice minister placed on the courts after the coronavirus crisis erupted and is scheduled to commence later this month.

Last week, 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.

Israeli law mandates that Cabinet ministers and mayors resign if indicted, but prime ministers are not specifically required to step down. In January, the Supreme Court declined to rule on whether Netanyahu could form a government under indictment, saying the matter remained “theoretical” ahead of March’s elections.

On Monday, the court will address petitions concerning Netanyahu’s power-sharing coalition deal with his main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz. Netanyahu and Gantz signed the agreement to form a national government last month after Israel’s third consecutive, deadlocked election in just over a year. The deal would have Netanyahu serve the first 18 months as prime minister, after which Gantz would assume power for the next 18 months.

The coalition deal and Netanyahu’s upcoming corruption trials have triggered large protests in Tel Aviv’s main square. Participants in the demonstrations observed social distance in accordance with public health regulations.

The petitions against Netanyahu were filed by advocacy groups that have asked the high court to ban any indicted politician, including Netanyahu, from being allowed to form a new government. They also say that parts of the coalition deal are illegal.

Eliad Shraga, head of one of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, one of the groups petitioning the court, said in a statement ahead of Sunday’s proceedings that it was “unconscionable that a man like this will go in the morning to court to sit in the dock and in the evening will manage the security cabinet and send us and our children to battle.”

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, has held onto power as a caretaker leader for more than a year as political stalemate prevented the creation of a government and triggered successive elections.

Israel’s Netanyahu notches key wins in a deal with his rival

April 21, 2020

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s embattled prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has notched two critical victories in this week’s power-sharing agreement with his chief rival: He can stay in office throughout his upcoming corruption trial, and he can press forward with a potentially explosive plan to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank.

Netanyahu and former military chief Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party, announced their “national emergency government” late Monday, ending 16 months of political paralysis and narrowly averting an unprecedented fourth national election in just over a year.

The emergency government’s stated mission is to steer the country through the coronavirus crisis, which has killed over 180 Israelis and put a quarter of the country out of work. But after a bruising period of prolonged political stalemate, both men also appear to have been driven toward each other by their deepest survival instincts.

Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to rotate 18-month terms as prime minister, and they have evenly divided key government ministries and parliamentary committees. In effect, each side will be able to veto the other’s actions.

Commentator Sima Kadmon said the coronavirus crisis served as the pretext for the unlikely alliance. “The real goal was Netanyahu’s effort to buy time,” she wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. An early test for the alliance will be an issue close to Netanyahu’s heart: the annexation of large parts of the West Bank. Such a move would destroy any lingering hopes of establishing an independent Palestinian state and draw widespread international condemnation.

Netanyahu and his pro-settler base see an opportunity under the friendly administration of President Donald Trump who seeks re-election in November. Although their government is to focus on coronavirus issues for its first six months, Netanyahu persuaded Gantz to allow him to raise annexation plans in the Cabinet from July 1.

Netanyahu could still face some obstacles. The deal says any move would require U.S. support and need to take into account the opinions of key allies. Gantz has given annexation only lukewarm support. But the vague language of their deal allows Netanyahu to present the proposal to parliament — where he appears to have majority support for the idea — even without Gantz’s backing.

Palestinian official Saeb Erekat called the coalition agreement a threat to regional peace and security. “It is an international responsibility to hold the new Israeli government accountable,” he said.

The coalition deal has also come under heavy criticism in Israel. Through three bitter election campaigns in the past year, Gantz portrayed himself as the antithesis to Netanyahu and repeatedly vowed never to sit in a government with a prime minister suspected of serious crimes. After the most recent election last month, Gantz even began pushing legislation in parliament to ban the indicted Netanyahu from remaining as prime minister.

Yet with the clock ticking, and his fragile alliance unraveling, Gantz accepted Netanyahu’s invitation last month to form a government together. The sudden announcement angered many of his supporters and broke up the Blue and White alliance, leaving him with only a shrunken version of the party. A fourth election would likely have sent Gantz into political irrelevance.

Speaking in parliament Tuesday, Gantz vowed to uphold the rule of law. “I took upon myself the mission to safeguard the democracy because I believe it is the most significant source of strength as a society,” he said.

Netanyahu also defended the deal as best for the nation. Yet for all of his talk in recent weeks about the coronavirus and national unity, leaks from the coalition negotiations indicated he was also motivated by his own personal survival as he prepares to go on trial.

Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals. He denies the charges and says he is the victim of a hostile media and aggressive prosecution. Yair Lapid, who withdrew his Yesh Atid party from Blue and White last month and will likely be the next opposition leader, said Tuesday that he apologized to those he persuaded to vote for Gantz.

“There hasn’t been a fraud like this since the state was established,” said Lapid. “You don’t fight corruption from within. If you’re in, you’re part of it.” While Israeli law requires public officials to resign if charged with a crime, that does not apply to sitting prime ministers.

Although Netanyahu is supposed to step aside next year under the deal, it creates a new position of “designated prime minister” that would permit him to remain in office while on trial. Netanyahu has been desperate to stay as prime minister. As the case against him has gained steam, the office has provided him a high-profile stage to lash out against his opponents and rally his base. And last month, his hand-picked justice minister managed to delay Netanyahu’s trial until late May.

Although Netanyahu will not be able to prevent the trial, he nonetheless will be able to continue to use his office as a bully pulpit throughout the proceedings. Several nonprofit advocacy groups filed challenges to the coalition deal, asking the Supreme Court to ban an indicted politician, such as Netanyahu, from being allowed to form a new government. If the court rules in favor of the challenge, the deal could unravel and the country could still be plunged into new elections.

Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker who is now president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said the coalition agreement ends a difficult stalemate but offers little hope. He said the government would likely make progress on consensus issues, like rescuing the economy and passing a budget.

But in other areas, including annexation, “I very much expect it to be very difficult,” he said. “It will be mainly a government of mutual vetoes and paralysis.”