Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc reacted with fury Thursday after the High Court of Justice ordered the Knesset to hold a vote on choosing a new speaker before Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s resignation comes into effect on Friday.
The decision from the court, issued after midnight Wednesday, came after Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, resigned in a bid to evade a previous court order compelling him to hold the vote, in which he was facing defeat. His resignation sparked a constitutional crisis as, accusing the court of undemocratic meddling in Israel’s parliamentary affairs, he also shuttered the legislature and defied the Knesset’s legal adviser and the country’s attorney general in refusing to return and organize the vote.
The Arrangements Committee was due to convene at 11:30 a.m. to prepare details of the plenum discussion and vote, which is due at 4 p.m. and will be chaired by Labor leader Amir Peretz, who as the most veteran MK is Edelstein’s default replacement.
While Edelstein’s resignation only comes into effect after 48 hours, the court, in its late Wednesday ruling, suspended his powers and temporarily transferred them to Peretz.
Peretz will oversee the vote for Edelstein’s successor, most likely Blue and White MK Meir Cohen, who is backed by 61 of the 120 MKs. Blue and White will then gain control of the parliamentary agenda.
Former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, of the Netanyahu-aligned Yamina party, told the Kan public broadcaster Thursday morning that democracy was “dying slowly” and argued that the court had “invented a non-existing step and imposed an order on the legislature on how to conduct itself. This lacks any legal basis.”
Her fellow Yamina member, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, said the High Court was “continuing to speed straight into a brick wall and deepen the constitutional crisis.” He claimed that its “arrogance” would come back like a boomerang and that the Knesset would ultimately “put an end to the court’s intervention in its business.”
United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev was more vitriolic, saying the court was losing public trust and that “the judges are oozing with despicable arrogance; their shame is out in the open.” He added that “in a different place these judges would have stood trial.”
On the center-left, however, politicians welcomed the High Court ruling.
“Given the circumstances, the correct decision was made,” MK Itzik Shmuli of Labor-Meretz told Kan. “With all due respect to Edelstein, he not only humiliated the court, but also undermined the foundations of democracy.”
Blue and White MK Mickey Levy said the High Court had made a “natural and basic” decision and added that Edelstein “didn’t leave the court any choice, given the shameful manner in which he chose to end his tenure.”
Edelstein himself said in an interview published Thursday with the Israel Hayom daily that his decision to refuse to implement the court order was made not as a private person but as the head of the legislature, and disputed the allegation that his behavior could be seen as a green light for any citizen to snub a court ruling they don’t like.
On Wednesday night, President Reuven Rivlin, in an address to the nation, said it was “unthinkable” for a lawmaker to ignore the courts. “I know that the vast majority of Israel’s leadership, from left and from right, knows that it is the duty of every one of us to obey the rulings of the courts, and that it is unthinkable that anyone would not do so,” he said. “And even if someone is of the opinion that the court is wrong in its conduct, whatever the disagreement between us, we must always ensure that the rules of democracy, without which we are destroyed, are upheld,” he added.
High Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut slammed Edelstein for his actions in the late night ruling, but did not impose any sanctions on him for his rejection of a binding court order.
“There has never been such an occurrence in this country where a leadership figure publicly and defiantly refused to uphold a court order, saying that his conscience did not allow him to carry it out,” she wrote.
The ruling by the five-judge panel followed a recommendation from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that Peretz be immediately appointed as interim Knesset speaker and schedule a vote on a permanent speaker. The judges said Edelstein, as a symbol of Israel’s leadership, had caused “untold and serious damage” to the rule of law and public interest.
They noted that upholding the rule of law in Israel was even more crucial at a time when the public was being burdened with massive restrictions on freedom and movement to combat the coronavirus.
“This is a situation that we cannot acquiesce to; an unprecedented harm to the rule of law demands an unprecedented remedy,” the court said, dispelling accusations, from Edelstein and many others in the 58-strong Knesset bloc led by Netanyahu, that it had exceeded its authority in ordering Edelstein to quickly hold the vote on the speaker in the first place.
Following the ruling, the Knesset Secretariat sent a notice to all 120 lawmakers informing them a session would be held Thursday.
The court ruling came after Mandelblit told the court Wednesday that Edelstein’s resignation should not prevent parliament from holding an immediate vote on his successor, as ordered by the court.
The Knesset’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, had already 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.
Addressing the High Court on Wednesday, Yinon said he no longer represented Edelstein. “For 24 years I have been in front of this court and represent the various state authorities,” he said. “I have never come with such a heavy heart. This is an event that surprised me. Unprecedented in its gravity. Breaking norms between the legislature and the judiciary.”
Yinon said he had “failed to convince the Knesset speaker that even if he resigns, the matter will be brought to the Knesset as the order directs.”
Edelstein, who has served as speaker since 2013, said Wednesday that his resignation would not go into effect for another 48 hours, asserting that the vote on his successor would have to wait. In his resignation speech, he accused the High Court of undermining Israeli democracy by seeking to impose its will on parliament, and said his conscience prevented him from complying.
The High Court had ruled unanimously on Monday night that Edelstein, who had already shuttered the Knesset plenum for five days from March 18 to avoid putting his job up for a vote, must hold the vote by Wednesday to elect a successor. In its devastating ruling, it accused him of undermining democracy by refusing to do so.
“The continued refusal to allow the Knesset to vote on the election of a permanent speaker is undermining the foundations of the democratic process,” Hayut wrote.
The Knesset “is not a cheerleader for the government,” she also wrote, dismissing Edelstein’s argument that the election of a permanent speaker required clarity over the nature of the incoming government. The reverse was true, she noted. “The Knesset is sovereign.”
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz was tasked last Monday by 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.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.