The High Court of Justice was meeting Tuesday on the issue of whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could form a government after the upcoming national election, despite being indicted in three different criminal cases.
The hearing, overseen by Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, Deputy Chief Justice Hanan Melcer and Justice Uzi Fogelman, comes after the court accepted a petition signed by 67 members of the academic and high-tech worlds demanding a ruling on whether a Knesset member battling criminal charges can be tasked with putting together a government.
Israeli law requires cabinet ministers and mayors to resign if indicted, but does not specify so for a sitting prime minister. There are no restrictions on Netanyahu to run in the March 2 election but good governance groups are appealing on whether he could be tasked with forming a new government if he emerges victorious.
Opening the hearing, Hayut said the High Court must decide whether it should even debate a petition over the suitability of an indicted lawmaker to form a government.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has asked the court to solely focus on the single question of whether the issue merits a debate at all and not to issue a ruling on the actual subject.
The court was not expected to hand down an immediate ruling and may ask for a full panel of the court to convene on the matter. Either way, it was wading into uncharted territory.
Given the shaky legal ground, the court could deem the scenario hypothetical and delay the case until that actually happens.
The hearing comes as Netanyahu appears poised to seek immunity from the corruption charges against him, delaying the prospect of a trial until the elections when he hopes to have a parliamentary majority coalition that will shield him from prosecution.
The request for immunity is likely to languish under the current Knesset. Normally, a request for immunity would need to be approved by the Knesset House Committee and then submitted to a full vote.
But the committee charged with handling such matters doesn't exist because a government was never formed after September's election. The attorney general cannot file the indictment until the question of immunity is settled, delaying any court proceedings.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is sticking to his message that "only the nation can decide" who will lead the country.
Despite being indicted by Mandelblit in November on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, Netanyahu has refused to resign as prime minister.
He has dismissed the charges as an "attempted coup" and has vowed to battle them from the prime minister's office.
Netanyahu has long accused judicial and law enforcement officials of trying to drive him from office and has said only the voters can choose who will lead the country. His allies have issued stern warnings against what they call an "activist" court overstepping its authority.
Last week, he won an overwhelming victory in Likud's leadership race and will again head the party in the March elections - the third in less than 12 months as neither Netanyahu nor chief rival Benny Gantz of Blue& White have been able to form a government after elections in April and September of this year.
Last month, Mandelblit ruled that Netanyahu can remain interim prime minister, just days after charging him.
Mandelblit has claimed in the past that he would have preferred it if the issue of Netanyahu's legal standing was debated as a public rather than a legal issue.
Netanyahu is the country'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.
First published: 09:17, 12.31.19