Facing a growing public outcry over his “undemocratic” refusal to convene the Knesset plenum and allow it to set up committees to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein insisted on Thursday the parliament was “not closed, and our democracy isn’t in danger.”
He blamed the rival Blue and White party for his decision not to allow a vote pushed by the centrist faction to replace him as speaker, saying his actions were meant to force the two leading parties into a unity coalition.
“Either we go to unity or we have anarchy,” he said.
Likud won 36 seats in the March 2 election, but the parties supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to clear the 61-seat threshold for a parliamentary majority. Blue and White won 32 seats, but 61 newly elected MKs, including the 15 representatives of the Arab-majority Joint List, backed him for prime minister.
Neither side is believed to have a stable ruling coalition.
“It’s time to call the bluff. The Knesset isn’t closed and our democracy isn’t in danger,” Edelstein told Channel 12 in a Thursday evening interview.
He accused “a camp in Blue and White” of claiming he had undermined Israeli democracy because it was “trying to prevent a unity government.”
He promised to allow a plenum vote to establish the Arrangements Committee — effectively opening the 23rd Knesset for business — on Monday. The Knesset does not hold votes on the sabbaths of the major monotheistic religions, i.e., on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Edelstein has urged a unity government, but also backs Likud’s demand that Netanyahu go first in rotation as premier.
“I’ve coordinated with Netanyahu more than once over the past few days to make sure he’s doing everything to reach a unity government,” he told Channel 12.
“Everyone has already done their spin at my expense,” he complained, “but if in the end a [unity] government is established, I will say that every minute and every day [of the criticism] was worth it.”
He blamed the Knesset’s troubles on the last three consecutive elections.
“It’s strange to talk about a Knesset that doesn’t function. It’s because of the repeat elections. That’s exactly why I’m working to finally establish a unity government” to avoid further elections, he said.
Blue and White alone, he added, did not have the numbers to form a government on its own.
“If Blue and White was a [viable] alternative [to Likud], they would already have established a government.”
Meanwhile, Blue and White said it was breaking off unity talks with Likud after sources from the ruling party claimed Gantz had already agreed to let Netanyahu go first as prime minister.
Blue and White denied the claim, calling it “cynical spin.”
“Negotiations with the Likud team were stopped tonight,” the party said in a statement.
“No meeting took place today and contrary to the reports, there are no agreements,” it added. “What we have seen throughout the day is cynical spin during a great and difficult crisis for Israeli citizens. Next week, Likud will have to deal with a functioning Knesset [working] for the benefit of Israel’s citizens.”
Earlier Thursday, Blue and White filed a High Court petition against Edelstein’s decision to prevent the Knesset from convening, stepping up protests against Netanyahu’s government and the Likud party for “undemocratic” actions.
Netanyahu and Edelstein “are not only trying to destroy Israeli democracy, but also to cause the election results to be ignored,” said Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah, one of the party’s coalition negotiators, who filed the petition at the High Court of Justice on Thursday afternoon.
He said Edelstein had “hijacked” the Knesset by preventing a plenum vote on a new Knesset speaker earlier this week, knowing there is a majority for replacing him.
“We won’t let that happen,” he added.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu said in a Channel 12 interview that Likud was preventing the Knesset from convening out of a fear that Gantz planned to allow an Arab lawmaker from the Joint List to head a Knesset committee. (The last functioning Knesset already had an Arab committee chair: MK Aida Touma-Sliman, who chaired the Committee for the Status of Women.)
Blue and White has accused Netanyahu of “shutting down Israeli democracy” by preventing the parliament from meeting and establishing committees to oversee the effort to combat the coronavirus, including invasive new tracking policies imposed as part of the effort.
The High Court said Thursday it would convene a hearing on the Knesset freeze on Sunday.