Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Yinon said Sunday that the parliament cannot be shuttered due to coronavirus fears or as a negotiating tactic by the Likud party.
The opinions, submitted to the High Court of Justice, dealt a blow to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s efforts to prevent a vote on his replacement.
The High Court is set to hear several petitions against the shuttering of the parliament at 4 p.m. on Sunday. The petitions will be heard by a five-judge panel, including Chief Justice Esther Hayut and fellow justices Hanan Melcer, Neal Hendel, Uzi Fogelman and Yitzhak Amit.
Edelstein — who closed down Knesset activity on Wednesday, drawing opposition fury, public protests and a swift rebuke from President Reuven Rivlin — has promised to allow votes in the plenum to resume on Monday, with the except of a vote to replace him with a new speaker.
Likud warned in a statement on Sunday that a vote to replace the speaker would “doom the unity government” — terms for which were proposed Saturday night by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — “and condemn us to a fourth election.” It called Blue and White’s insistence on holding plenum votes “shocking irresponsibility during a global coronavirus pandemic.”
In his opinion, Mandelblit said Health Ministry directives prohibiting gatherings of over 10 people could not be applied to the Knesset or its committees, which were not under any government ministry’s authority, and so those restrictions could not constitute a reason for preventing the parliament from holding sessions.
He also said it was imperative that the Arrangements Committee, which establishes the new Knesset’s first committees and procedures after an election, be established right away to allow the newly sworn-in Knesset to function.
Edelstein set off a firestorm of criticism last week after he refused to allow the Knesset plenum to convene to vote on establishing the Arrangements Committee and electing a new speaker. Edelstein at first argued the freeze was linked to safety precautions amid the coronavirus outbreak, but later explained it was meant to force Likud and Blue and White to compromise in unity talks.
Critics said it amounted to an illegal shuttering of parliament by the Likud party in order to improve the party’s leverage in the coalition talks.
According to the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, the freeze appears to be unique among democratic parliaments during the COVID-19 pandemic. While many parliaments have curtailed or changed working arrangements due to the virus, only two others stopped operations altogether, those of Romania and Canada. In both cases — unlike in Israel — the parliament’s members voted for the move.
Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon said in his opinion Sunday that Edelstein did not have the authority to prevent Knesset plenum gatherings, particularly given his standing as an acting speaker held over from the 21nd Knesset, two inconclusive elections ago. That status limited his ability to declare sweeping restrictions on the Knesset’s work, including the decision not to allow plenum votes that could replace him with a new speaker.
“A situation in which an unelected Knesset speaker serves only by virtue of the principle of continuity is likely to lead to a result in which the current majority in the Knesset finds it difficult to advance moves that it wants,” Yinon wrote.
Yinon told the High Court that the Knesset’s bylaws (article 19 of the Knesset Statute) stipulated that the plenum must convene on Mondays, Tuesday and Wednesdays, and that a speaker who canceled the meetings required the approval of the Knesset House Committee or Arrangements Committee to do so. Similarly, preventing committees from meeting was a power given to committee chairs alone.
Edelstein had in effect taken for himself powers delegated to other bodies within the Knesset in his bid to prevent those bodies from being formed, according to Yinon’s argument.
In response to the legal officials’ rejection of his move, Edelstein told Army Radio on Sunday his move was the only way out of the political deadlock of the past year and a half.
Edelstein has argued over the past week that Blue and White’s tenuous 61-seat majority, which includes the Arab-majority Joint List, cannot form a stable government of its own. Since a unity government was the only viable alternative, and since, he has claimed, no government can function without a cooperative speaker, the next speaker should not be chosen until the final shape of the next government has been hammered out between the sides.
In his Sunday interview he said that past “coalitions and oppositions came to an agreement between them on the choice of speaker. This time that’s not happening, and that’s a shame. The Knesset will indeed select a new speaker, possibly in the next few days. But all of us want to see a broad unity government at long last. Choosing a permanent Knesset speaker when there’s no clear direction for [which] government [will be established] is a sad day…. If the speaker opposes [the government] then that government will fall within two to three months,” he said.
He called the High Court petitions “a waste of the busy judges’ time, because I’ve already announced that a vote on establishing the committees will take place on Monday.”
And he rejected claims that Israel’s democracy was endangered by his unprecedented move. “If you look at the facts, there’s no danger to democracy. The Knesset is functioning, the High Court is functioning, and in a few weeks these kinds of questions will seem inappropriate.”
Sunday saw calls from both sides of the aisle to return the parliament to work, even with seven lawmakers out of 120 currently in quarantine.
“The Knesset has to function even during the coronavirus crisis,” said right-wing Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked. “All the parliaments in the world are functioning. We need a change to the statute to allow MKs who are in quarantine to vote.”
One Blue and White MK weighed in with a suggestion to employ videoconferencing to allow the parliament to convene without endangering its members.
“Given the expectation of many long weeks of closure and quarantine for large swaths of the population, it is our duty, as part of [our responsibility] to keep the parliament operating without disruption, to immediately implement tools that will allow debates and votes without requiring a physical presence in the plenum hall,” MK Yizhar Shai wrote in a letter to Edelstein.
Such a move would require a change to Knesset bylaws, which could only be carried out once the parliament’s plenum and Arrangements Committee are allowed to convene.