An eye on higher office, Edelstein walks a risky tightrope on Netanyahu immunity
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An eye on higher office, Edelstein walks a risky tightrope on Netanyahu immunity

Forced to decide how to proceed on the PM’s immunity bid, Knesset speaker may also in effect be deciding between his own potential bids for either the premiership or the presidency

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein during a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset, December 11, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein during a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset, December 11, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In over four years as Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein has showed little compunction about decisively banging the gavel to keep his unruly parliament in line. But recently, the Likud stalwart has found it difficult being as resolute when it comes to just one Knesset member under his charge: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

When senior Likud figures spoke out and backed Netanyahu after criminal charges were announced against him by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Edelstein was the last to do so.

He found it hard to comment on whom to support in last month’s leadership primary between challenger MK Gideon Sa’ar and Netanyahu, becoming the only Likud MK not to endorse either candidate.

And now, it seems, he is finding it hard to decide whether to help Netanyahu postpone his prosecution by using his powers as speaker to employ stalling tactics in the process involved for the premier to request immunity from the Knesset.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein seen at a state ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem as Israel marks the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 12, 2018. (Noam Moskowitz/POOL)

So hard to decide in fact, that Edelstein effectively passed the buck to the Knesset chief legal adviser, asking Eyal Yinon last week to rule if the speaker has the power to block the formation of House Committee — the only committee authorized to deal with MKs’ immunity requests.

After a dramatic back and forth between Likud and the High Court of Justice, with the ruling party seeking to block the legal adviser from publishing his legal opinion on the matter, Yinon ruled on Sunday evening that the Knesset cannot block the process because Edelstein does not have the right to prevent the Knesset plenum from forming the committee.

Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon attends a Knesset committee meeting on June 6, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The ruling effectively allows the parliament to consider — and, with the current balance of power, almost certainly rejectNetanyahu’s request to receive immunity from the indictment he faces in the three criminal cases against him.

But, despite his best efforts to avoid decisive action, Edelstein still retains a certain amount of power to hinder the procedures on the way to the final immunity vote. Likud sources have said they will try to delay the process by tying it up in court and with other challenges, hoping to drag it out it past March 2, when a new Knesset will be voted in.

On Monday morning, for example, Likud MKs claimed that the Knesset Arrangement’s Committee did not in fact have the permission from Edelstein to begin a debate over authorizing Yinon’s ruling. Asked by The Times of Israel if he had given permission of not, Edelstein’s office remained cagey, saying only to “ask the committee if he asked for permission” and refusing to give a simple yes or no answer. The confusion resulted in a two-hour delay to the meeting.

The decisions the speaker has to make now may be even bigger than simply supporting Netanyahu or not. Edelstein’s conduct moving forward could determine his own future, as well as that of the prime minister.

Presidency or premiership

Edelstein is seen as a key candidate to replace President Reuven Rivlin when his seven-year term comes to an end in July 2021. A former Prisoner of Zion in Soviet camps where he was subjected to forced labor as punishment for clandestine Zionist activity, a Knesset member for 24 years after emigrating to Israel, and having already served as Knesset speaker for a full seven years, he certainly fits the bill as a well-known public figure with a strong background who could easily fill the role set to be vacated by Rivlin in 2021.

But that same background and public status could also position him to take over another role that could also be vacated in the near future: the premiership.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) seen with President Reuven Rivlin (C) and chairman of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein at a memorial service marking 21 years since the assassination of late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, held at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem. November 13, 2016. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

Edelstein has long been seen as one of the Likud party’s leading voices and is currently placed second on the party’s Knesset slate behind Netanyahu, having won the last party slate primary among Likud members. While he eventually stayed out of the race, he was initially reported to have been mulling a bid for the party chairmanship in the recent leadership primary, in which Gideon Sa’ar was defeated by Netanyahu.

And with Netanyahu not having named a permanent deputy prime minister since coming to power in 2009 nor having allowed many Likud members to take senior cabinet positions, Edelstein, with the status attached to being Knesset speaker, has emerged as one of not many potential contenders to take over from or after Netanyahu.

And with both the presidency and the premiership potentially in his sights, albeit at a distance, the way Edelstein conducts himself in the coming stages of Netanyahu’s immunity battle could determine whether either or both of those options remain viable.

Risking both

To become president after Rivlin’s term ends in a year and a half, Edelstein would need to win a secret ballot of the 120 Knesset members elected in March (assuming a lasting government is formed). According to current polls for the national vote, Edelstein would almost certainly need the support of the members of a number of parties from the center-left, as well as most if not all of those on the right.

Up until now, Edelstein, while known for his right-wing, pro-settlement views, has been seen as a consensus figure with respect from across the political spectrum. He has generally managed to remain above the political mudslinging and populist electioneering that often defines Israeli politics and is well placed to receive broad support to be president.

Further efforts to block, delay or slow the immunity bid, however, could put that reputation, and his chance of becoming head of state, at risk.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, center, talks during a Knesset session in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. The Israeli parliament began voting to dissolve itself on Wednesday and pave the path to an unprecedented third election within a year. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The centrist Blue and White, Likud’s main rival, has already warned of “consequences” if Edelstein stands in the way of allowing the immunity request to be debated — a threat primarily targeting his position as speaker but also hinting at future support for a bid for the presidency.

On the other hand, if Edelstein gives Blue and White free rein to form the House Committee and hold the deliberations over Netanyahu’s immunity as it likes, he likely will be seen from within his own Likud as a political traitor, and he risks even be labeled by the prime minister as one.

With many of the Likud parliamentary party, membership and supporters fiercely supportive of Netanyahu, Edelstein cannot be seen as helping remove the prime minister if he wants to retain a chance of running for top job as Likud leader.

Still undecided

There are risks for Edelstein in continuing to try and stay above the fray in Israel’s divided and divisive political arena, with each side wanting him to be fully in its court. By staying in the middle, Edelstein could lose the trust of both sides, and might lose his chance at both the presidency and the premiership — and even the speaker’s office too.

Yet Edelstein’s comments Sunday, when he said he disagreed with Yinon’s decision but would abide by it, appear to be a sign that he is still trying to tread gingerly while refusing to pick sides.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a press statement in the Knesset, January 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Convening a Knesset House Committee now would be a terrible mistake,” he said in a press conference held at the speaker’s office. “We can’t let such an important process, a kind of judicial process, be undertaken like this. We can’t let the House Committee turn into a jungle that shames the parliament. I can’t promise a fair process [in the current circumstances]. Irrespective of the identity of the person asking for immunity, he deserves a fair process. The Knesset deserves a fair process. We citizens deserve a fair process.”

He added, “I disagree with [Yinon’s] decision,” while indicating that he did not intend to stand in its way. “As far as it concerns me, I don’t intend to help the tainted process that begins today.”

Trying to walk the tight-rope between a clear decision, and one that could define his future moves, Edelstein is apparently taking the middle path: he won’t help but won’t stand in the way.

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