Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party fumed Tuesday morning after the High Court ruled that the Knesset must be convened to choose a new speaker and after the Blue and White-led bloc used its 61-strong majority to form parliamentary oversight committees.
After gaining control over the Arrangements Committee, which determines which parliamentary committees will be formed and who will sit on them during a transitional government, the center-left bloc late Monday pushed ahead with the formation of six special parliamentary committees, including one to oversee Israel’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Likud’s bloc boycotted all the votes.
“Blue and White together with [Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor] Liberman and the [mostly Arab] Joint List decided to steal the Knesset from 2.5 million right-wing voters,” Likud said in a statement.
“While showing unprecedented destructiveness, ignoring any existing norm in the Knesset’s history, they decided to form no fewer than six temporary committees, in all of which they set a majority for themselves with their representative heading the committee,” it fumed. “That is in total contrast with the total Knesset seat distribution and with the accepted practice throughout 22 [previous] Knessets.”
The party said the right-wing bloc “will not cooperate with this and won’t take part in these undemocratic discussions and votes, which quash and ignore 58 MKs chosen by the people,” and vowed to fight the “thuggish and undemocratic behavior.”
On Monday night, High Court justices ordered Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a Likud member, to hold a vote by Wednesday on replacing him, ruling against Edelstein’s effort to block the vote, and calling his delaying tactics unjustified and anti-democratic.
Likud’s Tourism Minister Yariv Levin continued to attack the High Court Tuesday, a day after he, Justice Minister Amir Ohana and other right-wing lawmakers urged Edelstein to defy the court’s attempt to compel him to hold the vote, in what was seen as the seed of a possible constitutional crisis.
“The court is leading us into anarchy. It’s acting like it owns the state,” Levin told the Kan public broadcaster Tuesday morning, accusing the court of being part of a deep state-esque conspiracy.
“Five judges chosen by cronies without any oversight behind closed doors and off the beaten path are sitting and thinking they can be in charge of everything,” he said.
However, at least three senior Likud members called for the party to accept the court’s ruling.
“Though I think the involvement [of the court] was not legitimate, this sensitive period is not the time to have a crisis between the branches of government,” Minister Ze’ev Elkin told Army Radio.
Elkin argued that there had never been a Knesset speaker from the opposition, and that if one is chosen, “the implication is that a unity government cannot be formed.”
Likud MK Nir Barkat similarly told Army Radio that “the court’s decision must be respected. However, it was a mistake by the court to even get involved in the matter.”
Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar also urged respecting the High Court ruling.
The High Court issued its ruling Monday night barely an hour after Edelstein rebuffed the justices’ ultimatum earlier in the day calling on him to hold a vote on a new speaker by Wednesday.
Were Edelstein to again defy the court, Israel would be plunged into a constitutional crisis.
Edelstein would likely lose his job in the vote, since an alliance of 61 MKs led by Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, is set 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.
“It clearly harms the status of the Knesset as an independent authority [while also harming] the process of government transition, the more so as the days pass since the inauguration of the 23rd Knesset.
“Therefore,” she went on, “there is no escaping the conclusion that in the circumstances created, this is one of those exceptional cases where this court is required to intervene to prevent a violation of our parliamentary system.”
The Knesset “is not a cheerleader for the government,” she also wrote, dismissing Edelstein’s argument that the election of a permanent speaker first required clarity on the nature of the incoming government. The reverse was true, she noted. “The Knesset is sovereign.”
Gantz was tasked last week 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 Joint List and seven of whom are from the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu — would necessarily agree to sit together in a coalition, and thus neither Gantz nor Netanyahu has a clear path to a majority.
Blue and White is also seeking to advance legislation that would bar a Knesset member facing criminal charges from forming a government, effectively disqualifying Netanyahu.
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.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.