Shortly after resigning as Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein kicked off a constitutional crisis Wednesday when he openly refused to heed a High Court order mandating that he call a plenum vote on Wednesday to choose a new speaker.
The Knesset’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, 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.
Shortly thereafter, Yinon informed the High Court that Edelstein, an MK from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, had told him he had no intention of calling a vote on the matter.
Edelstein’s resignation will only come into effect in 48 hours; until then, he is still bound by the court ruling.
Several organizations, joined by the Blue and White, Labor-Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu parties, filed contempt-of-court petitions against Edelstein on Wednesday, and Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut demanded that he respond to them by 2:30 p.m.
According to Channel 13, the Knesset speaker has told allies: “The plenum is adjourned and that’s the end of it. The High Court can’t send judges to open the plenum, and I hope they won’t behave in such an extremely irresponsible and un-statesmanlike manner.”
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s office informed the High Court and all sides to the contempt petition that in his legal opinion, Edelstein must adhere to the court ruling.
Yinon similarly said that since Edelstein has no deputies, and since he has said he won’t agree to call a vote to elect deputy Knesset speakers, Edelstein is the sole person responsible for implementing the court ruling and that unless the court issues “special directives,” convening the plenum Wednesday will be impossible.
MK Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party has been seeking to replace Edelstein as speaker so as to take control of the legislative agenda, said that “the Knesset belongs to Israel’s citizens and its publicly elected officials will adhere to the laws of the State of Israel and court rulings. Nobody is above the law.”
His Blue and White colleague MK Yair Lapid said that “a Knesset speaker who defies a High Court order is anarchy. Has Netanyahu sent Yuli to burn down democracy? Where are the decent members of the right-wing camp? We will defend democracy in any way.”
While some allies of Netanyahu, including Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, defended Edelstein’s move as a justified response to a High Court ruling that violated the Knesset’s sovereignty, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett who leads Smotrich’s Yamina party, took a different stance.
“High Court rulings must be implemented, or else the state will fall apart,” Bennett told followers on social media.
In his resignation announcement, 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.
“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,” added Edelstein, who spent three years in a Soviet gulag.
“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.”
Justice Minister Amir Ohana, also of Likud, on Monday had said Edelstein should stand firm against the justices.
Edelstein would likely have lost his job in a vote had he not resigned, since an alliance of 61 MKs led by Gantz intends to back Gantz loyalist Meir Cohen for the post. Blue and White would then gain control of the parliamentary agenda.
The High Court had ruled unanimously on Monday night that Edelstein must hold a vote by Wednesday to elect a successor. In its devastating decision, 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 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 the court issued its Monday 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.”
Edelstein said that due to the political situation — in which Gantz has been tasked with forming a government despite Blue and White 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.
Edlestein reopened the Knesset on Monday, but refused to schedule the vote on a new speaker.