High Court orders vote for new Knesset speaker to go ahead Thursday

Late-night decision authorizes veteran Labor MK Amir Peretz to oversee vote; slams defiant resigned speaker Yuli Edelstein for causing ‘untold and serious damage’ to rule of law

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)
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)

The High Court of Justice ordered the Knesset to hold a vote on choosing a new speaker on Thursday, giving temporary authorization to veteran Labor MK Amir Peretz to lead the session.

The decision from the court, issued after midnight Wednesday, came after Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, resigned in a bid to evade a previous court order compelling him to hold the vote, in which he was facing defeat. His resignation sparked a constitutional crisis as, accusing the court of undemocratic meddling in Israel’s parliamentary affairs, he also shuttered the legislature and defied the Knesset’s legal adviser and the country’s attorney general in refusing to return and set up the vote.

While Edelstein’s resignation only comes into effect after 48 hours, the court, in its late Wednesday ruling, suspended his powers and temporarily transferred them to Peretz, the longest-serving member of the Knesset.

Peretz will oversee the vote for Edelstein’s successor, most likely to be Blue and White MK Meir Cohen, who is backed by 61 of the 120 MKs. Blue and White will then gain control of the parliamentary agenda.

Chairman of the Labor party Amir Peretz is seen during a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

High Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut slammed Edelstein for his actions in the late night ruling, but did not impose any sanctions on him for his rejection of a binding court order.

“There has never been such an occurrence in this country where a leadership figure publicly and defiantly refused to uphold a court order, saying that his conscience does not allow him to carry it out,” she wrote.

The ruling by the five-judge panel followed a recommendation from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that Peretz be immediately appointed as interim Knesset speaker and schedule a vote on a permanent speaker. The judges said Edelstein, as a symbol of Israel’s leadership, had caused “untold and serious damage” to the rule of law and public interest.

They noted that upholding the rule of law in Israel was even more crucial at a time when the public was being burdened with massive restrictions on freedom and movement to combat the coronavirus.

“This is a situation that we cannot acquiesce to; an unprecedented harm to the rule of law demands an unprecedented remedy,” the court said, dispelling accusations, from Edelstein and many others in the 58-strong Knesset bloc led by Netanyahu, that it had exceeded its authority in ordering Edelstein to quickly hold the vote on the speaker in the first place.

Following the ruling, the Knesset Secretariat sent a notice to all 120 lawmakers informing them a session would be held Thursday.

The court ruling came after Mandelblit told the court Wednesday that Edelstein’s resignation should not prevent parliament from holding an immediate vote on his successor, as ordered by the court.

Mandelblit stated the position in a legal opinion responding to a petition filed by the Movement for Quality Government, which demanded that an interim Knesset speaker be appointed immediately.

“Even a notice of resignation does not allow for ignoring a court order,” the attorney general stated.

“Take every step necessary, including announcing that Edelstein’s term is immediately null and void and that the most senior Knesset member will be appointed chairman,” Mandelblit wrote to the High Court.

“Anything in order to give expression to the basic and obvious principle of the fundamental duty to obey court rulings,” he continued, blasting Edelstein for resigning rather than agreeing to do so.

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

The Knesset’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, had already 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.

Addressing the High Court on Wednesday, Yinon said he no longer represented Edelstein. “For 24 years I have been in front of this court and represent the various state authorities,” he said. “I have never come with such a heavy heart. This is an event that surprised me. Unprecedented in its gravity. Breaking norms between the legislature and the judiciary.”

Yinon said he had “failed to convince the Knesset speaker that even if he resigns, the matter will be brought to the Knesset as the order directs.”

Edelstein, who has served as speaker since 2013, had said that his resignation would not go into effect for another 48 hours, asserting that the vote on his successor would have to wait. In his resignation speech, he accused the High Court of undermining Israeli democracy by seeking to impose its will on parliament, and said his conscience prevented him from complying.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein is tested for fever outside the Knesset on March 16, 2020 (Adina Valman/Knesset spokespersons’ office)

The High Court had ruled unanimously on Monday night that Edelstein, who had already shuttered the Knesset plenum for five days from March 18 to avoid putting his job up for a vote, must hold the vote by Wednesday to elect a successor. In its devastating ruling, 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.

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.”

Blue and White leader Benny 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 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.”

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