Blue and White demands Edelstein find solution to allow quarantined MKs to vote

Blue and White demands Edelstein find solution to allow quarantined MKs to vote

Opposition party proposes video calls or specially built booths in the plenum to allow Knesset votes to take place during the coronavirus pandemic

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

Disinfecting the Knesset ahead of the swearing in of MKs amid the coronavirus crisis, March 16, 2020 (Knesset spokeswoman)
Disinfecting the Knesset ahead of the swearing in of MKs amid the coronavirus crisis, March 16, 2020 (Knesset spokeswoman)

Amid fierce disagreements over the opening of the Knesset due to coronavirus fears, the Blue and White party is demanding that despite social distancing regulations, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein find a way to allow parliament members in quarantine to exercise their right to vote.

“According to the law, and this is also what Blue and White will follow, every MK is eligible to vote. Solutions need be found to make it happen,” a party spokesperson told The Times of Israel Sunday.

The spokesperson said that the party would not agree to cancel out the votes of coalition members in quarantine by having an equivalent number of its own MKs skip the relevant plenary session, a practice sometimes adopted in other circumstances.

Several solutions have been suggested to allow Knesset votes to take place despite restrictions on gatherings brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

MK Izhar Shay of Blue and White has proposed convening the MKs in a mass online videoconference call to hold debates and cast votes.

“There is no reason for the epidemic to prevent democracy from taking place, certainly not in the ‘innovation nation,'” he said in a tweet suggesting that plenary sessions take place via Zoom, Skype or another videoconferencing platform.

According to the Walla news site, another party proposal would see MKs driven to the Knesset in special vehicles and each casting a vote from a separate room or specially built booth in the plenum.

As of Sunday, seven lawmakers were in quarantine — Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Regional Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Shas MKs Moshe Abutbul and Yitzhak Cohen, and Blue and White MKs Ram Ben-Barak and Alon Shuster — five from the coalition and two from the opposition.

On Sunday morning, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon said that the parliament cannot be shuttered due to coronavirus fears, or as a negotiating tactic by the Likud party.

Their legal opinions, submitted to the High Court of Justice, dealt a blow to Speaker Edelstein’s efforts to prevent a vote on his replacement.

The High Court was hearing several petitions against the shuttering of the parliament on Sunday afternoon. The petitions were being heard by a five-judge panel: Chief Justice Esther Hayut and fellow justices Hanan Melcer, Neal Hendel, Uzi Fogelman and Yitzhak Amit.

Edelstein, who shuttered the Knesset on Wednesday, has promised to allow votes in the plenum to resume on Monday — with the exception 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 and condemn us to a fourth election,” and 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.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at Bar-Ilan University. March 4, 2020 (FLASH90)

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 Wednesday 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 Likud 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 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.

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