In blow to Blue and White, Knesset speaker says he’ll block vote to replace him

As centrist party gets first stab at forming government, Edelstein says he won’t allow plenum to convene on his replacement, claiming it would doom unity talks

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Knesset on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Knesset on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of the Likud party said Sunday he would prevent the rival Blue and White party from convening parliament on Monday to vote in a new Knesset speaker to replace him.

Blue and White, in a letter to Edelstein on Friday, informed him of its intent to hold a vote on the identity of the new Knesset’s speaker, shortly after all 120 MKs are officially sworn in Monday following the March 2 election.

The move by Blue and White is seen as a power play ahead of coalition-building attempts, as the party believes it can secure a majority in the new legislature for its leader Benny Gantz and take the reins of parliament from Likud for the first time in a decade.

Control of the Knesset speaker position would give the opposition parties more power to advance legislation, including a potential bill that would prevent a person facing criminal charges from forming a government — effectively disqualifying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from doing so.

Blue and White parliament member Meir Cohen speaks during a Knesset discussion on a bill to dissolve the parliament, May 29, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Blue and White was widely expected to propose its MK Meir Cohen as Knesset speaker. Its candidate was expected to have the backing of Yisrael Beytenu and Labor-Meretz, as well as much or all of the Joint List. The position of Gesher’s Orly Levy-Abekasis remains unclear, after she declared she would not recommend Gantz as premier.

In a statement Sunday, Edelstein voiced support for the formation of a unity government of Likud and Blue and White, and claimed replacing him in the plenum would doom such efforts.

“Hasty political actions, like choosing a permanent Knesset speaker and advancing controversial legislation aim to shut down the possibility of unity that the people want,” said Edelstein, who has held the post since 2013.

“The time for petty politics is over. I won’t enable this unconventional step meant to clear the way for a power grab in the legislature,” he added.

Blue and White sent a letter to Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon on Sunday night, asking him to weigh in on the legality of Edelstein’s maneuver.

In a separate letter to Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, Edelstein, Yinon, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, the party argued that the Knesset’s plenary and committees should be staffed and fully operational despite the coronavirus pandemic, asking the Health Ministry to exclude parliament from the restrictions barring gatherings of more than 10 people to stem the outbreak.

Edelstein’s statement came a short while after Gantz received 61 recommendations from lawmakers, compared to 58 for Netanyahu, and was given the first shot at forming a coalition by President Reuven Rivlin.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz addresses supporters at the party’s post-election event in Tel Aviv on March 3, 2020. (Gali Tibbon/AFP)

The president summoned both men to a meeting on Sunday night in an apparent effort to push for a unity government between both parties.

Netanyahu’s Likud won 36 Knesset seats in the national election — the third vote within a year — compared to Blue and White’s 33, but the Likud leader’s right-wing bloc again failed to muster a parliamentary majority.

The only realistic path to a coalition appears to be a unity government of Blue and White and Likud, but attempts to bring the sides together after the September election failed over disagreements on who would serve as prime minister first and Netanyahu’s looming corruption trial.

More recently, Netanyahu has invited Gantz for talks on an “emergency national government” to deal with the burgeoning coronavirus crisis. The pandemic has also prompted a two-month delay of Netanyahu’s criminal trial, which had been set to open this week, after the Justice Ministry declared a state of emergency in the courts.

Last week, Blue and White sought to create a center-left minority government backed on the outside by the Joint List, a controversial prospect that before the election, Gantz vowed he would not pursue. Vocal opposition by rightist members of Blue and White, MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, along with Labor-Gesher-Meretz’s Levy-Abekasis, who vowed to vote against a minority government, cast doubt on the likelihood of that scenario.

The 120 members of Knesset elected to office earlier this month will be sworn in to parliament in batches of three on Monday in order to comply with restrictions on the size of gatherings, amid a national campaign to stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

The Knesset announced Sunday that it will swear its members in 40 rounds of three lawmakers each, adhering to Health Ministry orders prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people in an enclosed space.

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