Likud Knesset Member Yuli Edelstein said Sunday that his absence from key votes tied to the coalition’s sweeping plan to shift power from the judiciary to politicians was no accident, also offering full-throated support for efforts to freeze the government’s judicial overhaul.
Edelstein, a Likud stalwart who has shown rare, if halting, opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was sanctioned by the party earlier this month for missing votes on first readings of coalition bills to bestow preemptive immunity from court review upon certain laws and to make it harder to force a premier to recuse himself from his position.
“I wasn’t at the first-reading votes, and it wasn’t by chance,” Edelstein told Army Radio in his first interview since Defense Minister Yoav Gallant called for a halt to the legislative process. “I hope everyone’s good sense prevails.”
At the time of the votes, Edelstein’s spokesman had denied his absence had been motivated by opposition to the bills, saying among other things, that the lawmaker was at a funeral for one of the votes.
A former minister and Knesset speaker who recently tried to challenge Netanyahu for Likud’s leadership, Edelstein had entered the plenum shortly after judicial reform votes were tallied early on the morning of March 13, presenting a separate bill that he personally sponsored.
The maneuver gave party MKs the impression that the snub was deliberate and Likud sanctioned Edelstein by blocking him from submitting private member’s bills, adding items to the Knesset agenda, or “speaking in the name of the Likud party” for three of the Knesset’s working weeks.
On Thursday, lawmakers passed the bill shielding the premier from certain ethics obligations into law.
Edelstein, who chairs the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, has been one of the few lawmakers within the Likud to counsel the government to slow down the legislative push, but his sidelining by the party on the issue has limited his influence.
On Saturday night, Gallant joined those urging to freeze the process in favor of compromise talks, a signal of cracks forming around the issue within Netanyahu’s inner sanctum amid intense pressure from a growing protest movement against the overhaul.
Four rebel lawmakers who vote against the legislation would deny the 64-member coalition a majority in the 120-member parliament. If they were to merely abstain the coalition would still have the votes to pass the law, but it would be easier for the High Court to strike down an amendment to one of the quasi-constitutional Basic Laws if were passed with fewer than 61 MKs, experts believe.
Edelstein was quick to praise Gallant, thanking him for “joining the path I’ve been leading for weeks.”
“The majority of the people want and understand the need for changes in the judicial system, but this must be done with patience, dialogue, and broad discourse in order to reach a broad consensus,” he said in a statement.
Speaking to Army Radio, Edelstein repeatedly urged dialogue with opposition parties about the overhaul and said that the legislative blitz be slowed down, but would not say outright if he would support a vote on it, abstain, or just skip the vote.
“I hope that common sense will prevail,” he said and noted that ultra-Orthodox politicians were also likely in favor of tempering the legislative drive, which has sparked massive street demonstrations.
“I’m confident that the Haredi side understands the need to calm things down and compromise, I’ve heard that from the most senior officials in Haredi society and Haredi parties,” Edelstein said using a Hebrew term for the ultra-Orthodox. “There’s not a bad chance they will do the right thing.”
Edelstein defended Gallant against a call that he be fired which came from National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit coalition party.
No one, he said, has finished their path with the party, and continued “I have been hearing these unnecessary statements for two months, the Likud has always been the place where you can express more than one opinion.”
He leveled criticism at his party for its rollout of the plan, which presented the radical overhaul as a near fait accompli.
“We made a number of mistakes in how we presented the judicial reform. It’s not too late to rethink the path and do things by consensus,” Edelstein said.
Last week Economy Minister Nir Barkat said that although he supports the overhaul if the Supreme Court strikes down part of the proposed legislation, he will accept the ruling, contrary to Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who is spearheading the overhaul and who has vowed that the government will not listen to the court.
Their remarks came as the government pushes forward with its legislative plans. Netanyahu said in a speech Thursday night that he would soften parts of the shakeup going forward, but also said it would vote to pass this week the bill to put key Supreme Court appointments, including its presidency, directly in coalition control. It is not yet clear when the vote will be held, though Tuesday has been posited as a potential target. The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee convened Sunday morning to continue the process of preparing and approving the bill for its second and third (final) Knesset readings.
Opponents of the overhaul have drawn a line in the sand on that bill, saying it will politicize the court, remove key checks on governmental power and cause grievous harm to Israel’s democratic character. In response, protest leaders on Friday announced an unprecedented nationwide “week of paralysis” to upend daily life in the country, including mass protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The overhaul has been met with increasing alarm and objections by top public figures including the president, jurists, business leaders, Nobel-winning economists, prominent security officials, and many more. This week top Finance Ministry officials warned of deep and lasting damage to the economy if the changes pass in their current form