Israel's Supreme Court on Monday tackled the vexed question of whether a political deal to form a coalition government after three inconclusive elections in less than a year is actually legal.
A ruling against the pact could leave the country facing a fourth poll.
Under the proposed three-year agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz, each would head the government for a period of 18 months.
But eight separate petitions to the court seek to declare the deal illegal, including one from former Gantz ally Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid.
Netanyahu charged that a Supreme Court intervention would "go against the will of the people", in answer to a question during a speech about the novel coronavirus.
"I was elected by majority vote: the Likud under my leadership won more votes than any other party in the state's history," Netanyahu said.
"There is a big majority of people and in the Knesset who want the government that we have formed," he added.
On Sunday, the court spent seven hours hearing other challenges to another Netanyahu term as premier, based on the fact that he is facing a criminal trial on corruption charges.
Some commentators see that tactic as unlikely to succeed in light of an opinion from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that there is no legal basis to prohibit him from taking office.
Mandelblit has however advised that "certain arrangements in the coalition agreement raise major difficulties," although he said there are not grounds to throw out the whole accord.
- Judges in facemasks -
"Today… the court will dive into the details of the coalition agreement -- and this is where the decision that will bring about a fourth election could be made," Tova Tzimuki wrote Monday in top-selling Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot.
"The disqualification of any one section of the agreement... will cause the unprecedented legal construction on which it is supposed to be based to wobble," the journalist added.
The arguments are being heard by a panel of 11 judges, sitting in facemasks and divided by perspex panels as part of measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Proceedings are being streamed live on the court's website.
At Monday's hearing, justices raised concern with several aspects of the coalition deal, but also indicated reluctance to rule on the legality of individual provisions before those provisions had become law.
That position is in line with Mandelblit's guidance that problematic provisions be reviewed "at the implementation stage".
A ruling is expected by Thursday, the deadline for forming a government under electoral law.
Netanyahu has been charged with accepting improper gifts and illegally trading favours in exchange for positive media coverage. The veteran premier denies wrongdoing and his trial is set to start May 24.
Israeli law bars an indicted person from serving as an ordinary cabinet minister, but does not compel a criminally charged prime minister to leave office.
- The deal -
The main argument against the coalition deal concerns specific provisions that opponents say violate the law.
The agreement sees Netanyahu serving as prime minister for 18 months, with Gantz as his "alternate", a new title in Israeli governance.
They will swap roles midway through the deal before likely taking voters back to the polls in 36 months.
But Israeli law traditionally endows governments with four-year terms, an issue pounced on by the deal's opponents.
There is also a provision freezing certain public appointments during the government's initial six-month pandemic emergency phase, which critics also say is illegal.
Addressing Israel's parliament, the Knesset, on Monday, opposition leader Lapid said the coalition partners were counting on Israelis not reading the agreement.
"Don't give them that pleasure. Read every word," he urged Israelis, accusing Gantz and Netanyahu of forging a deal more concerned with "how many ministers each party gets," than public service.