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Israel in post-vote quandary as Netanyahu faces trial

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Will Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu use his apparent election win to beat back criminal charges, or could the indictments block him from forming a government?

Or maybe the veteran right-wing leader will assemble a coalition and then let the judicial process play out?

The possible consequences of bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges filed against the prime minister last month are hard to predict, but one thing is clear: Israel is facing an unprecedented legal quandary.

According to the latest tally from Monday's vote, Israel's third in less than a year, the pro-Netanyahu faction will control 58 seats in the Knesset, or parliament -- three short of a majority.

The anti-Netanyahu camp, led by the centrist Blue and White party, is expected to hold 53 or 54 seats, with final certified results due next week.

That makes it most likely that President Reuven Rivlin will ask Netanyahu, rather than Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, to form the next government.

But according Amir Fuchs, a legal expert at the Israeli Democracy Institute think-tank, Rivlin will seek legal guidance before tapping Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has been charged with a range of offences including receiving improper gifts and offering a media mogul lucrative regulatory changes in exchange for favourable coverage.

- Still just a 'candidate' -

Israeli law does not prevent a prime minister from serving while under criminal indictment, but Netanyahu is not currently a normal prime minister, Fuchs explained.

Netanyahu is heading a transitional government and, in the days after the election, remains technically just a "candidate for prime minister," Fuchs said.

"The law doesn't deal with a candidate who has a bribery offence against him getting a mandate," he told AFP.

Fuchs predicted that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit -- who charged Netanyahu -- would not give a definitive answer on whether an indicted candidate can form a government.

"I think it is more likely the attorney general will say something pretty vague," Fuchs said.

If that happens, "the supreme court will have to decide," he added.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a civil society group, said Tuesday that it had filed a supreme court petition to bar Netanyahu from forming a government.

"A man like this cannot serve as a leader and role model, and cannot be prime minister," the group said in a statement.

The top court however rejected that petition, holding that it could not rule on it until Netanyahu is reappointed prime minister.

Other organisations were expected to file similar bids against Netanyahu.

- Checks and balances -

Meanwhile, the head of Israel's centre-left Meretz party said Wednesday that the new parliament would have a 62-seat majority to pass a law blocking an indicted person from serving as prime minister.

The tweet from Nitzan Horowitz said such a law would be "politically right... and morally appropriate".

Fuchs agreed that such a law would be fair in principle, but said it would be wrong if passed in a "clearly personal" context targeting Netanyahu.

"It would be legal, but I think it would be very inappropriate," he said.

Netanyahu's opponents have repeatedly warned, including throughout the campaign, that the premier would seek to quash the investigation against him by pushing through new measures that undermine judicial independence or that would grant him retroactive immunity.

Yonatan Freeman, a political scientist and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said such concerns were overstated and evidently did not worry voters, as Likud's election performance was its best ever under with Netanyahu as leader.

Freeman saw "no scenario" where the new parliament agrees to give Netanyahu retroactive immunity and noted that the prime minister had indicated "he plans on showing up for court or having the legal process play out".

Netanyahu's trial is due to start on March 17.

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