President has told Edelstein: Open Knesset, ensure democracy

Knesset legal adviser says speaker can’t keep parliament closed

In blow to Yuli Edelstein’s closure of the plenary, parliament’s top lawyer says issue will be put to a vote, which the Likud will likely lose

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein during a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset, December 11, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein during a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset, December 11, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Amid fierce accusations that the speaker of the Knesset is stifling parliamentary oversight of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the Knesset’s legal adviser indicated Wednesday evening that Yuli Edelstein would not be able to continue his closure of the plenary into next week.

Earlier Wednesday, Edelstein (Likud) ordered the Knesset shut at least until Monday after the Blue and White party refused his proposal of having equal representation in the Knesset’s so-called Arrangements Committee, which is tasked with overseeing the formation and operation of the parliament.

Among other things, the Arrangement’s Committee oversees the creation of the Knesset’s other committees, including those that would provide parliamentary oversight of the government’s efforts to contain the pandemic. The committee could also allow the Blue and White party to call for a vote on the Knesset speakership, which would likely result in Edelstein’s ouster from the position that he has held since 2013, leading critics to accuse him of subverting the will of the majority of the country.

The Arrangements Committee is typically formed under an agreement between the Knesset’s parties, but the parliament’s legal adviser Eyal Yinon said Wednesday if it is not formed by the beginning of next week, the matter must be brought before the plenary for a vote, which Edelstein’s Likud party will likely lose.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (L) and Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon at the Knesset on May 7, 2013. (Flash)

“Form the Arrangement Committee as quickly as possible. If it is not given power by the beginning of next week, there will be a need to place the choice of [who sits in] the Arrangements Committee on the docket of the Knesset without further delay,” Yinon wrote in a legal opinion.

The crux of the disagreement centers around the size of the committee, with Blue and White wanting the committee to comprise 17 members, which would give the 61-seat bloc led by Blue and White a 9-8 majority on the committee. Likud meanwhile, claiming that Health Ministry guidelines allow no more than 10 people to gather at the same time wants it limited to that number, which would result in a state of parity on the committee.

Minutes after Yinon’s opinion was released, Edelstein officially banned meetings of more than 10 people in the 120-person parliament in a move he said was in response to the coronavirus.

Edelstein, who had announced plans to roll out such a measure earlier today, said the order will be in place for 14 days.

“The meaning of the order on the Knesset is that gatherings of more than 10 people in the plenary will not take place and that a 2-meter (6.6-foot) distance must be maintained [between people],” he wrote.

Edelstein says the order will not prevent voting, but that it will take place in the manner similar to the parliament’s swearing-in ceremony, in which Knesset members entered the plenary in groups of three.

The move comes after two ministers and two Knesset members were placed in quarantine after being in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, March 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In an extraordinary intervention underlining concerns over Israeli democracy functioning properly during the coronavirus outbreak, President Reuven Rivlin phoned Edelstein earlier Wednesday and told him to reopen parliament.

“A Knesset that is out of action harms the ability of the State of Israel to function well and responsibly in an emergency. We must not let this crisis, as serious as it is, harm our democratic system,” Rivlin told Edelstein by phone.

Rivlin “implored” Edelstein “to ensure ongoing parliamentary activity, even during the coronavirus crisis,” a statement from the President’s Office said.

“We must do everything to deal with the crisis, being careful not to grievously harm our democratic system,” Rivlin added.

In response to Edelstein’s closure, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz said his faction would immediately file an appeal to the High Court of Justice against the decision.

“We have been working hard all day through different communication channels — including me meeting personally with MK Edelstein, who is refusing to let us congregate in the halls of democracy and work for the citizens and — above all else — tackle the challenge of corona,” Gantz said.

“At this point, we have no choice but to turn to the Supreme Court,” he added.

Gantz made this announcement in a missive to the members of Blue and White, Joint List, Yisrael Beytenu and Labor-Gesher-Meretz — the parties that recommended him for prime minister, which represent a majority in the Knesset with 61 seats. Gantz was given first shot at forming a government earlier this week following the March 2 election but likely won’t be able to do so without Likud, since members of his party opposed the formation of a minority government backed on the outside by the predominantly Arab Joint List.

In the letter, Gantz accused Edelstein of working on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Head of Blue and White party Benny Gantz holds a press conference at Kfar Maccabiah on March 7, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israel has introduced a series of sweeping restrictions since the coronavirus outbreak began, requiring all Israelis returning to the country to self-quarantine for 14 days and barring foreigners. It also shut schools, cafes, malls, gyms and more. Ministers early on Tuesday approved a highly controversial measure to allow the government to track Israelis’ phones to locate where carriers of the virus had been.

On Tuesday, widening the restrictions, the Health Ministry told Israelis not to leave their homes or visit parks and beaches, with exceptions made for essential needs, like food shopping, medicine shopping, medical care and work.

As of Wednesday morning, there have been 433 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Israel, six of them in serious condition.

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