The High Court of Justice on Monday indicated that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of the Likud party should schedule a parliamentary vote on his replacement by Wednesday, in a victory for the Blue and White party.
The justices cited the Knesset’s legal adviser position that a vote for speaker should be held shortly, and the attorney general’s position that a vote for speaker should be held as soon as possible, and gave Edelstein until 9p.m. Monday to respond.
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.
Likud is expected to be defeated in the vote on the speaker’s job, with Blue and White MK Meir Cohen his likely successor.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who also plays a central role in coalition negotiations, condemned the High Court ruling on Monday, and urged Edelstein to defy the justices.
“The court has officially taken control of the Knesset, and from today, the High Court has turned the Knesset speaker into a rubber stamp as the Knesset and plenary are being managed by the justices,” said Levin. “There’s nothing like this in any democracy. I urge the Knesset speaker to announce that only he will determine when the plenary convenes and what its agenda shall be.”
Justice Minister Amir Ohana, also of Likud, tweeted a photo of the court’s stated position, which also said Edelstein must inform the justices on whether he will proceed with a vote on his replacement. Above it, wrote Ohana: “If I were the Knesset speaker, my answer would be no.”
In response to Levin, Blue and White said: “Democracy is democracy, not only when it’s comfortable for you and Netanyahu. Respect the will of the majority and stop harming the state’s institutions.”
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, in part to oversee the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Blue and White is also seeking to advance legislation that would bar a Knesset member facing criminal charges from forming a government, effectively disqualifying Netanyahu.
The fight comes with Israel’s yearlong political deadlock showing no signs of resolution, following three consecutive national elections. In the March 2 vote, Likud picked up more seats than Blue and White, but Gantz received the endorsements of a majority of MKs, granting him first shot at forming a government.
Still, the Blue and White leader appears to have no chance at forming a coalition without Netanyahu’s Likud, due to the refusal by members of his own party to support a minority government backed on the outside by Arab lawmakers — Gantz’s only realistic path to a government.
In the interim, Netanyahu has called for an emergency unity government with Gantz. The Blue and White leader last week backed off his demand that he serve first as prime minister under such an agreement.
But Netanyahu warned that replacing Edelstein, who has served in the role since 2013, would doom the ongoing unity government talks.
On Monday, Netanyahu’s Likud party said all 58 members of its right-wing religious bloc would boycott a Knesset vote to form a key parliamentary committee, accusing the rival Blue and White party of “dictatorial, destructive conduct.”
In addition to seeking to replace Edelstein, Gantz’s party is planning to form the key Arrangements Committee on Monday and kick off the 23rd Knesset’s activity despite the current caretaker government’s fierce opposition.
A boycott of the vote from the right-wing bloc would guarantee Blue and White control over the Arrangements Committee, which determines which parliamentary committees will be formed at the outset and who will staff them.
Blue and White plans to then vote on the formation of the 23rd Knesset’s committees, including the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Finance Committee and a special committee to oversee the handling of the pandemic.
“Blue and White is trampling democracy using a one-person majority, and with the help of the Joint List, including terror supporter Hiba Yazbak,” said Likud. “In the history of the State of Israel… there has never been a situation in which the formation of an Arrangements Committee and other committees is brought to a vote without agreement,” it added.
Likud MK Miki Zohar, the party’s whip, said that after the Arrangements Committee is formed, right-wing lawmakers will filibuster the follow-up votes to form additional panels.
Due to social distancing regulations, Israeli lawmakers will be restricted to entering the Knesset to vote in groups of six at a time in alphabetical order as the parliament opens for business Monday. At any given time no more than 10 people will be allowed inside the plenum. Speakers will sign up in advance and will be called to enter when it is their turn. Waiting areas will be designated for those slated to speak. Those outside the plenum will be able to view the proceedings inside on screens.
With committees expected to be formed, most will be split between two rooms, with members of the panels communicating with each other via videoconference.
As for the MKs currently in quarantine, they will be allowed to vote, though the manner in which they will do so has not yet been finalized.
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.