Knesset speaker, Netanyahu pounded as ‘undemocratic’ after lawmakers locked out
Protest convoy, High Ct. petitions, demanding Knesset reopen

Knesset speaker, Netanyahu pounded as ‘undemocratic’ after lawmakers locked out

Blue and White threatens to cut off unity talks as Likud accused of using health crisis to maintain power illegally; Edelstein promises to allow vote on committees Monday

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a press statement in the Knesset, January 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a press statement in the Knesset, January 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A Blue and White MK threatened to halt unity talks with Likud as lawmakers remained shut out of the Knesset Thursday, amid a roiling power struggle that has sparked accusations of dictatorial conduct by the caretaker government under the cover of the coronavirus health emergency.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein defended his decision to keep the plenary closed throughout the week — amid blistering criticism and accusations he was severely injuring Israeli democracy — and pledged to form the freshly sworn-in legislature’s committees on Monday, blaming the delay on parties’ refusal to compromise on the makeup of the panels.

But senior Blue and White party MK Ofer Shelah said talks with Likud on a potential unity government to face down the health crisis should be frozen until the Knesset was opened by Edelstein and allowed to begin forming committees.

“Under the cover of a national crisis Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to cancel the election results, paralyze the Knesset and destroy the foundations of the state,” he tweeted. “Every MK should be devoted right now to one fight alone: the fight for the foundations of our life as a democratic nation. The rest will wait.”

On Wednesday Edelstein, of Netanyahu’s Likud party, 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.

Edelstein told Army Radio Thursday he would ensure all MKs would be able to vote on forming the committees after parties failed to reach agreements on their composition.

Blue and White and Likud have been fighting over control and staffing of committees in the new parliament. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz was tasked by the president this week with forming a government after receiving the support of 61 MKs, despite Netanyahu’s party receiving more seats than his own.

On Wednesday evening the Knesset’s legal adviser Eyal Yinon instructed Edelstein to allow the formation of the Arrangements Committee — which oversees the creation of the other committees — as soon as possible and said if no agreement was reached by the beginning of the week the matter would need to be put to a plenary vote without delay. Likud is likely to lose such a vote as it does not command a parliamentary majority.

On Thursday the Israel Democracy Institute warned Edelstein that failure to allow the Arrangements Committee to be formed “blatantly exceeds” the bounds of his office and “constitutes an unacceptable disregard for basic rules of democracy.”

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

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel petitioned the High Court of Justice to force Edelstein to allow the Knesset to convene, saying his “narrow political calculations” had overtaken his responsibility to allow the legislature to function while the country was engrossed in “critical matters of public security, civil rights and public health.”

Blue and White said it would also file a High Court petition against Edelstein later Thursday, and announced a press conference on Thursday afternoon.

Moshe Ya’alon, a former Likud defense minister who heads one of the factions that make up Blue and White, indicated that Netanyahu and his allies could be hauled in front of a tribunal. “When an investigatory panel is set up to look into Netanyahu’s attempt to rule as a dictator, by using the coronavirus crisis, you will need to explain where you were,” he warned members of his ex-party in a tweet.

A protest convoy of vehicles bearing black flags was headed from Tel Aviv to the capital and the Knesset on Thursday to demonstrate against Edelstein’s actions under the banner “Saving the Knesset.” The number of vehicles was said to be in the hundreds.

מחכים לכם בכנסת !

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Ido Zuk‎‏ ב- יום חמישי, 19 במרץ 2020

Edelstein slammed “pernicious rumors” he was seeking to keep the Israeli parliament closed and impotent as the country grapples with the coronavirus crisis amid political upheaval.

“All I have done over the past two days is speak to representatives of the factions” in a bid to reach an agreement on the composition of the various committees, Edelstein said. He said his appeals had been ignored.

“For 22 previous Knesset [sittings], committees were formed in agreement. Next week I will bring it up for decision in the plenum,” he said. The Knesset sworn in this week is the 23rd.

MK Ofer Shelah attends a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A former Likud Knesset speaker, Dan Tichon, told the Ynet news site Wednesday that Edelstein’s actions were “dangerous” and “absurd.” He said the lack of functioning committees was “crazy. This is a transitional government for the third time and it can do whatever it likes [without oversight].”

Beyond the disagreements between parties on the makeup of the committees, Edelstein has also cited the threat of coronavirus infection as a reason for severely limiting the legislature’s operations. On Thursday he vowed to use “technological means” to allow the committees to convene despite the ban on gatherings of over 10 people in one spot, likely referring to videoconference calls.

Among other things, the Arrangements Committee, over which the two parties are locked in a struggle, 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.

Edelstein denied Thursday that he was attempting to prevent being replaced, saying, “I don’t think two or three more weeks as speaker will add to my resume.”

A nearly empty plenum, due to restrictions against the coronavirus, is seen at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)

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.

Edelstein on Wednesday officially banned meetings of more than 10 people in the 120-person parliament in a move he said was in response to the coronavirus. He said the order will be in place for 14 days.

Edelstein said 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.

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

President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, during the Knesset Elections, on March 2, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“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.”

Blue and White’s 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 several members of his party oppose the formation of a minority government backed on the outside by the predominantly Arab Joint List.

As they battle it out in the Knesset, Likud and Blue and White have also been holding talks for days aimed at establishing an emergency national unity government, with Blue and White demanding several top ministries, the Kan news broadcaster reported Wednesday night.

The sides were said to still be negotiating over whether and for how long Netanyahu would serve as prime minister before Gantz would take his place under such an arrangement.

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 Thursday morning, there have been 529 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Israel, six of them in serious condition.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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