Edelstein to High Court: My conscience won’t allow me to comply with your order

Fighting contempt of court charge, Knesset speaker, who resigned but must still hold vote on his replacement, blames justices for ‘unprecedented constitutional crisis’

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

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Wednesday told the High Court of Justice his conscience would not permit him to hold a vote on his replacement in accordance with the court’s order, while accusing the justices of meddling in Israel’s parliament, fanning political turmoil, and plunging the country into a constitutional crisis.

Edelstein kicked off a crisis Wednesday when he openly refused to heed a High Court order mandating that he call a plenum vote on Wednesday to choose a new speaker. Edelstein resigned from the post, which he has held since 2013.

But the Knesset’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, told Edelstein that his resignation did not free him from the obligation to call the plenum vote for Wednesday, adding that if he didn’t do so he would be in contempt of the court ruling.

Yinon was later joined by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who informed the High Court and all sides to the contempt petition that in his legal opinion, Edelstein must obey the court ruling.

Yinon earlier informed the High Court that Edelstein, an MK from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, had told him he had no intention of calling a vote on the matter.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at a court hearing on the Shin Bet’s new emergency powers to track Israelis’ movements using their cellphone location data to help combat the spread of the new coronavirus, March 19, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“I regret that the court has decided what it has decided and chose, in an unprecedented way, to meddle in the Knesset’s work and my judgment, but my conscience will not permit me to comply with the order,” wrote Edelstein in his response to the court, countering contempt of court allegations.

“It is for that reason that I announced my resignation. It will go into effect in 48 hours and after that, whoever is appointed can make whatever decision they see fit.  I hope the honorable court will respect at the very least this decision pertaining to myself. I have no interest in degrading the honorable court, but in light of this decision, I feel I’ve been caught in an impossible situation and therefore I announced my resignation,” wrote the Likud MK.

Edelstein’s resignation will only come into effect in 48 hours; until then, he is still seemingly bound by the court ruling.

The response was publicized at 4 p.m., an hour and a half after a deadline the court imposed for Edelstein to respond.

Edelstein suggested the court had made its decision hastily and did not properly consider his arguments, noting the short time between his response to the court on Monday evening and its final 19-page ruling barely an hour later.

Noting the vagueness of Knesset protocols on when a speaker must be appointed — which provides a final deadline only — Edelstein argued that this was to enable coalition negotiations to proceed apace, with a speaker chosen after the parties arrive at an agreement.  In ordering the speaker appointed now, charged Edelstein, the court was disrupting the coalition talks.

“The court order may bring about the continued political paralysis in the country, paralysis whose resolution lies in political negotiations to build a unity government [of Likud and Blue and White] and not a court order,” he charged, referring to ongoing negotiations between the two largest parties to resolve the year-long deadlock that saw three consecutive national elections fail to yield a government.

“As someone who for years served as Knesset speaker, I believe the court ruling will lead, unknowingly, to a constitutional crisis that has not been seen since the founding of the state,” he wrote.

Edelstein is expected to be replaced temporarily by Labor’s Amir Peretz, who will serve as interim speaker until a new candidate is picked, likely Blue and White’s Meir Cohen. But it was unclear whether the Likud lawmaker could vacate his position to Peretz before his resignation took effect.

Several organizations, joined by the Blue and White, Labor-Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu parties, filed contempt-of-court petitions against Edelstein on Wednesday, and Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut had demanded that he respond to them by 2:30 p.m.

According to Channel 13, the Knesset speaker has told allies: “The plenum is adjourned and that’s the end of it. The High Court can’t send judges to open the plenum, and I hope they won’t behave in such an extremely irresponsible and un-statesmanlike manner.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at a Likud party faction meeting in the Knesset, on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Yinon similarly said that since Edelstein has no deputies, and since he has said he won’t agree to call a vote to elect deputy Knesset speakers, Edelstein is the sole person responsible for implementing the court ruling, and that unless the court issues “special directives,” convening the plenum Wednesday will be impossible.

MK Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party has been seeking to replace Edelstein as speaker so as to take control of the legislative agenda, said that “the Knesset belongs to Israel’s citizens and its publicly elected officials will adhere to the laws of the State of Israel and court rulings. Nobody is above the law.”

His Blue and White colleague MK Yair Lapid said that “a Knesset speaker who defies a High Court order is anarchy. Has Netanyahu sent Yuli to burn down democracy? Where are the decent members of the right-wing camp? We will defend democracy in any way.”

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett gives a statement to the media in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, January 26, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

While some allies of Netanyahu, including Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, defended Edelstein’s move as a justified response to a High Court ruling that violated the Knesset’s sovereignty, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads Smotrich’s Yamina party, took a different stance.

“High Court rulings must be implemented, or else the state will fall apart,” Bennett told followers on social media.

In his resignation announcement, Edelstein assailed the court.

“The decision of the High Court destroys the work of the Knesset,” he said. “The High Court decision constitutes a gross and arrogant intervention of the judiciary in the affairs of the elected legislature. The High Court decision infringes on the sovereignty of the Knesset.

“As someone who has paid a personal price of years in a labor camp for the right to live in the State of Israel, as a Zionist and as the speaker of this house, I won’t allow Israel to descend into anarchy, I won’t lend a hand to civil war,” added Edelstein, who spent three years in a Soviet gulag.

“Therefore, for the benefit of the State of Israel… I am hereby resigning from my role as Knesset speaker,” he said. “Let us pray and hope for better days.”

Justice Minister Amir Ohana, also of Likud, on Monday had said Edelstein should stand firm against the justices.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L) addressing the Knesset next to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, March 23, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

Edelstein would likely have lost his job in a vote had he not resigned, since an alliance of 61 MKs led by Gantz intends to back Gantz loyalist Meir Cohen for the post. Blue and White would then gain control of the parliamentary agenda.

The High Court had ruled unanimously on Monday night that Edelstein must hold a vote by Wednesday to elect a successor. In its devastating decision, it accused him of undermining democracy by refusing to do so.

“The continued refusal to allow the Knesset to vote on the election of a permanent speaker is undermining the foundations of the democratic process,” the court’s president, Justice Esther Hayut, wrote in a damning indictment of Edelstein’s behavior on Monday night, ordering him to schedule a vote on the speaker’s job by Wednesday.

“There is no escaping the conclusion that in the circumstances created, this is one of those exceptional cases where this court is required to intervene to prevent a violation of our parliamentary system,” she added.

The Knesset “is not a cheerleader for the government,” she also wrote, dismissing Edelstein’s argument that the election of a permanent speaker required clarity over the nature of the incoming government. The reverse was true, she noted. “The Knesset is sovereign.”

Gantz was tasked last Monday by President Reuven Rivlin with forming Israel’s next government, after 61 of the 120 MKs backed him for the post. But not all of those 61 — 15 of whom are from the mainly Arab Joint List — would necessarily agree to sit together in a coalition, and thus neither Gantz nor Netanyahu has a clear path to a majority.

Before the court issued its Monday ruling, Edelstein — who was elected to the Knesset in 1996 and has been speaker since 2013 — had informed the panel of five justices that he would only schedule a vote “when the political situation becomes clear.”

“I won’t agree to ultimatums,” Edelstein told the court. “I can’t agree because this means that the Knesset’s agenda will be determined by the High Court and not by the Speaker of the Knesset, who is assigned this role.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on June 17, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Edelstein said that due to the political situation — in which Gantz has been tasked with forming a government despite Blue and White having won fewer seats than the Likud (33-36) and appearing unlikely to be able to muster a coalition — an immediate election of a new speaker would be destabilizing.

“A permanent Knesset chairman has never been elected at a time when there was such great uncertainty as to the composition of the future coalition,” Edelstein wrote. Furthermore, given the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis, he said, it would be irresponsible to hold a vote now.

Edelstein set off a firestorm of criticism last Wednesday after he refused to allow the Knesset plenum to convene to vote both 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, and some argued that it constituted part of an attempted political coup, with a parliamentary majority headed by Gantz prevented from assuming control of the Knesset’s agenda.

Edlestein reopened the Knesset on Monday, but refused to schedule the vote on a new speaker.

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