Nearly 600,000 Israelis tuned in for a virtual protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party’s efforts to shutter the Knesset amid the coronavirus pandemic, in an event streamed over Facebook Live due to restrictions on mass gatherings.
Former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, ex-Mossad head Efraim Halevy, former Supreme Court vice president Elyakim Rubinstein, TV personality Lucy Aharish, actress Gila Almagor and Movement for Quality Government organization chairman Eliad Shraga addressed the online demonstration.
Over 597,000 people viewed the online-stream and over 65,000 clicked “attending” on the Facebook event.
Diskin used the platform to blast Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz for his apparent willingness to serve in a government under Netanyahu, who is facing indictment on corruption charges. Gantz did not rule out such an arrangement during a television interview on Thursday. The Blue and White leader 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. He did not, however, have a clear path to forming a government without Likud.
Addressing those tuning in online, Diskin said, “thanks to the votes of many of you, the bloc of 61 recommendations was formed, made up entirely of Netanyahu opponents. Thanks to you all, Benny Gantz received the mandate from the president to form the government. But since then, he and his friends have been running to form an emergency unity government headed by the Netanyahu.”
“It’s shameful and even disgraceful,” he continued. “Me and many others who voted for Blue and White solely because it was the least bad choice over the past few days have sadly discovered that we made a really bad choice.”
Diskin called on Gantz to avoid serving under Netanyahu even if it meant dragging the country to a fourth straight election.
Rubinstein urged Edelstein to immediately reopen the Knesset and allow for parliamentary oversight of the government response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
He also defended the judiciary in his remarks, saying, “The judiciary, the Supreme Court, the attorney general and the State Prosecutor’s Office are essential elements of democracy. The justice system is one of the three governing authorities and attacks on it are a detriment to the resilience of any democracy.”
He was referring to frequent attacks by the right against the judiciary amid Netanyahu’s criminal investigations. Netanyahu’s trial was set to begin last week, but was delayed to May last week due to the pandemic.
Shraga, of the Movement for Quality Government watchdog, said corruption at the highest levels of Israeli government represents a “more severe and more terminal illness” than COVID-19.
“There is a more severe and more terminal illness than the coronavirus, and that is the disease of corruption. Coronavirus will pass in another month, two or three just as it came. But corruption will remain, and it is something that can destroy the foundations of our country,” said Shraga.
The protest was focused on Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s decision to keep the plenary closed last week — amid blistering criticism and accusations he was severely injuring Israeli democracy. Ahead of the closure, Blue and White and Likud have been fighting over control and staffing of committees in the new parliament.
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.
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 think tank 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.”
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.”
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.
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.