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'I won't allow Israel to descend into anarchy'

In bombshell, Yuli Edelstein resigns to avoid calling vote on new speaker

Likud MK quits rather than adhere to High Court order to hold vote on his replacement, says justices ‘undermining democracy’; move means vote on new speaker delayed to next week

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a press statement in the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a press statement in the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a bombshell announcement, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Wednesday announced that he was resigning rather than calling a parliament vote on his own replacement, as required earlier this week by the High Court of Justice.

“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,” Edelstein, who spent three years in a Soviet gulag, said in a statement.

“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.”

Israel’s top court on Monday night ruled unanimously that Edelstein must hold a vote by Wednesday to elect a successor. In a devastating ruling, it accused him of undermining democracy by refusing to do so.

The court issued its ruling after Edelstein had rebuffed the justices’ earlier non-binding stance that such a vote be held.

In his speech announcing his resignation Wednesday, 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.”

Were Edelstein, an MK from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, to have persisted in defying the court, Israel would have been plunged into a constitutional crisis.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana, also a Likud MK, on Monday said Edelstein should indeed stand firm against the justices.

Edelstein’s resignation will only enter into effect in 48 hours, meaning his actions have delayed a vote on the next speaker until next week.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana speaks at the Knesset on September 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Edelstein would likely have lost his job were a vote to have been held Wednesday, since an alliance of 61 MKs led by Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, intends to back Gantz loyalist Meir Cohen for the post. Blue and White would then gain control of the parliamentary agenda.

“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.

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 they issued their 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 Blue and White leader Gantz has been tasked with forming a government despite 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.

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