Addressing an almost empty plenary hall due to restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz on Monday evening delivered a warning about the future of Israeli democracy, saying that other nations have tumbled towards totalitarianism under crises, and that the same process will not be allowed to happen here.
“In an unprecedented act, they tried to silence the Knesset, something that has not been done in any other functioning democracy and must never be done in the State of Israel,” Gantz said, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and specifically Likud Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein’s decision last Wednesday to temporarily shutter parliament. Edelstein’s move prevented the establishment of Knesset committees to oversee the work of the government during the ongoing crisis, and also staved off a vote in which he would likely have been replaced as speaker.
Edelstein at first argued that the freeze was linked to safety precautions amid the coronavirus outbreak, and later also said 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.
Earlier Monday, the High Court of Justice idicated that Edelstein should schedule a parliamentary vote on his replacement by Wednesday. Justice Minister Amir Ohana (Likud) and other Netanyahu allies promptly urged Edelstein to ignore the justices.
Speaking before a rescheduled vote on establishing the key Arrangements Committee, which in turn sets up the Knesset’s other committees, Gantz said the coronavirus crisis must not be used to limit Israel’s democratic institutions, and warned that crises have in the past led to the downfall of democratic giants.
The new Arrangements Committee was later voted into existence on Monday evening. It comprises 17 MKs, eight from Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc and nine from parties that oppose him, and will be headed by Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn.
“All major democracies began their demise when there was an emergency. None of them came close to ending when things were in good shape. It happened when things were not good,” Gantz said.
He went on to bitterly criticize calls from Ohana, some other Likud ministers and several more MKs in Netanyahu’s right-wing/Orthodox bloc for Edelstein to defy the High Court order to put his own job up for a vote by Wednesday. “Have you gone off the rails?” Gantz asked, addressing “My Likud friends.”
“It must not be allowed to happen!” he added. “I urge Netanyahu to immediately condemn [such statements] and put an end to them. Democracy and the rule of law in the State of Israel will be preserved — even if it is inconvenient for some. It’s a red line that is not crossed.”
The statements by Likud ministers and several MKs calling to defy the High Court marked a dramatic and possibly unprecedented turn in an already twisting political saga, in which many critics see a threat to Israeli democracy as the country attempts to navigate the coronavirus outbreak.
Directly criticizing Netanyahu over the delay arranged by Edelstein to the formation of the Knesset committees, Gantz asked, “What were you thinking?”That we wouldn’t set up the Finance Committee to compensate the self-employed and take care of the unemployed? That we would not monitor and take care of the public’s responses to the outbreak and the number of tests required? That we would not make sure there is distance teaching, and clear guidelines for the public?”
“Shall we make Israel a ‘disabled democracy’ just because it doesn’t work out for you?” Gantz gibed. “Even at this time we’ll come together and act democratically,” he promised.
Netanyahu’s Likud party initially said all 58 members of its right-wing religious bloc would boycott Monday’s Knesset vote on the Arrangements Committee, accusing Blue and White of “dictatorial, destructive conduct.” Some MKs from the bloc did attend the Knesset plenum as it convened during Monday afternoon, however.
Once the Arrangements Committee is set up, Blue and White plans to vote on the formation of the 23rd Knesset’s various committees, including the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Finance Committee and a special committee to oversee the handling of the pandemic.
“This isn’t small politics,” Gantz said, describing Knesset committees as “essential.”
Israel last Wednesday introduced the use of digital tech, including phone-tracking, to monitor the movements of everyone in the country, in order to warn them if they have been in unwitting extensive proximate contact with a virus carrier and should go into self-quarantine. The unprecedented use of such intrusive surveillance was introduced under emergency regulations, without parliamentary oversight because the relevant Knesset committee had not concluded its deliberations on the matter. The High Court has said the surveillance must stop on Tuesday unless such oversight is in place.
Amid interruptions from Likud’s Culture Minister Miri Regev, who was in the plenary as the government’s mandatory representative in the debate, Gantz also slammed Netanyahu for conditioning an offer to Gantz to join a unity government — in which Netanyahu would remain prime minister for 18 months, and then hand over to Gantz — on Blue and White not bringing a vote to replace Edelstein.
“The cynical attempt to negotiate unity while breaking democratic rules will not succeed,” Gantz said, calling on Netanyahu to join a coalition under his leadership. “I also call on Likud and Netanyahu to join us this evening: Let’s set up a government together to deal with the challenges of the hour,” he said.
Gantz, who was tasked last week by President Reuven Rivlin with forming the next government after 61 MKs recommended him for prime minister, had repeatedly vowed before the March 2 election not to sit in a government led by Netanyahu because of the criminal charges against the Likud leader. However, his stance appears to have softened amid the coronavirus crisis.
With Edelstein’s proposed ouster, Blue and White, which has the support of 61 of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers, is looking to gain control over parliament’s agenda, in part to oversee the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Blue and White is also seeking to advance legislation that would prevent a Knesset member facing criminal charges from forming a government, effectively disqualifying Netanyahu, who has been indicated on three charges and whose trial was set to begin on March 17. It has now been postponed until May, as Israel’s courts have shifted to an emergency footing amid the pandemic.