In shadow of virus, 1,000 attend pro-democracy rally outside Knesset

Demonstration comes as Knesset speaker announces resignation, refusal to comply with court order; activists say police prevent some from attending

Israelis take part in a demonstration 'to save Israel's democracy' outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 25, 2020.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israelis take part in a demonstration 'to save Israel's democracy' outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 25, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Over 1,000 protesters gathered outside the Knesset on Wednesday afternoon to demonstrate against Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who has defied a High Court of Justice order and refused to hold a vote on his replacement, plunging the country into a constitutional crisis.

Wearing masks to protect themselves and waving Israeli flags and black flags, the demonstrators called for Edelstein’s ouster. During the protest, the Knesset speaker announced his resignation.

Protests are one of the only permitted gatherings under the country’s pandemic lockdown rules, but participants told Hebrew media that local police prevented additional demonstrators from joining.

Edelstein kicked off a 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. Edelstein resigned from the post, which he has held since 2013.

Israelis take part in a demonstration ‘to save Israel’s democracy’ outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 25, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

Yinon was later joined by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who informed the High Court and all sides to the contempt petition that in his legal opinion, Edelstein must obey the court ruling.

Yinon earlier 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.

Israelis take part in a demonstration “to save Israel’s democracy” outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 25, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

MK Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party has been seeking to replace Edelstein as speaker, 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.”

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.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (R) and President Reuven Rivlin at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. (Mark Heyman and Haim Zach/GPO)

“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.

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.

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.

Edelstein reopened the Knesset on Monday, but refused to schedule the vote on a new speaker.

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