A number of high profile members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc called Monday afternoon on Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to defy a High Court position set out earlier in the day indicating that he should hold a parliamentary vote to choose a new speaker by Wednesday.
The statements by Likud ministers and several MKs, which drew immediate condemnation from at least two others within the party and many MKs across the aisle, marked a dramatic and possibly unprecedented turn in an already twisting political saga in which many critics see a threat to Israeli democracy as the country attempts to navigate the coronavirus outbreak.
Edelstein set off a firestorm of criticism last Wednesday after he refused to allow the Knesset plenum to convene to vote 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, and later claimed it was meant to force Likud and Blue and White to compromise in unity talks.
Some 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 others asserted that it constituted part of an attempted political coup in which the will of a majority of MKs, headed by Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, was being illicitly obstructed.
While the Arrangements Committee vote was set to go ahead Monday afternoon, it was not clear whether or when Edelstein would allow a vote on his position, which holds the power to bring legislation for a vote or quash it. On Monday, the High Court indicated Edelstein should hold a vote on his job by Wednesday, giving him until 9 p.m. Monday to respond.
Blue and White is proposing its MK Meir Cohen for the post, and appears to have a majority to back him.
Some leading Netanyahu allies said Edelstein should refuse to heed the court, arguing that the justices do not have jurisdiction over parliamentary procedures. Other voices, mainly from Gantz’s bloc, said defying the court would be anti-democratic.
“The court has officially taken over the Knesset, and from today the High Court has turned the Knesset speaker into a rubber stamp. There’s nothing like that in any democracy,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, a close Likud ally of Netanyahu who also plays a central role in coalition negotiations, said in a statement.
“I call on the Knesset speaker to announce that only he will determine when the plenum convenes and what will be on its agenda,” Levin added.
Justice Minister Amir Ohana, also of Likud, tweeted a photo of the court ruling and wrote “If I were the Knesset speaker, my answer would be no.”
Also responding to the court decision, former justice minister Ayelet Shaked said that “only the Knesset is sovereign to decide when it convenes and when it votes, in accordance with the law.”
Her fellow Yamina party member Bezalel Smotrich, the transportation minister, similarly called on Edelstein “not to succumb to the blatant intervention by the High Court in the Knesset’s work and refuse to accept its impositions.”
Smotrich, tweeting from home quarantine, said, “The impertinence and contempt of the High Court judges for the Knesset is something that works like the coronavirus — when you don’t deal with it in time it gets stronger at an exponential rate.”
And Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush, of the Netanyahu-aligned United Torah Judaism party, accused the High Court of “seeking to form a judicial dictatorship in Israel” by telling the Knesset speaker how to run parliament.
Porush urged Edelstein not to cooperate with “the court harming publicly elected officials,” calling on him to “prevent the intervention by the judges, important as they may be.”
Two Likud lawmakers, however, while criticizing the court’s decision, appeared wary of the calls to defy the order.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan wrote on Twitter that while the court was making a “bitter mistake,” its rulings “must be respected, otherwise we condemn ourselves to anarchy.”
Likud MK Gidon Sa’ar, who ran unsuccessfully against Netanyahu for the Likud leadership in January, tweeted that calls to disrespect judicial rulings were “unacceptable.”
With Edelstein’s proposed ouster, Blue and White, which has the support of 61 of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers, is looking to gain control over parliament, in part to oversee the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 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.
The fight comes with Israel’s yearlong political deadlock showing no signs of resolution, following three consecutive national elections. In the March 2 vote, Likud picked up more seats than Blue and White (36-33), but Blue and White leader Gantz received the endorsements of a majority of MKs (61 of 120), granting him first shot at forming a government.
In response to Levin’s comments, Blue and White said: “Democracy is democracy, not only when it’s comfortable for you and Netanyahu. Respect the will of the majority and stop harming the state’s institutions.”
Labor-Gesher-Meretz No. 3 Nitzan Horowitz said the calls to defy the court were “another step in the coup attempt” being carried out by the transitional government. He called on Blue and White to “immediately renounce entry into a government under Netanyahu.”
While Blue and White has a majority in the Knesset, it appears to have no chance at forming a coalition without Netanyahu’s Likud, due to the refusal by some of its own members to support a minority government backed on the outside by Arab lawmakers — Gantz’s only realistic path to a government.
In the interim, Netanyahu has called for an emergency unity government with Gantz. The Blue and White leader last week backed off his demand that he serve first as prime minister under such an agreement.
But Netanyahu has warned that replacing Edelstein, who has served in the role since 2013, would doom the ongoing unity government talks.
On Monday, Netanyahu’s Likud party said all 58 members of its right-wing religious bloc would boycott a Knesset vote to form the Arrangements Committee, accusing the rival Blue and White party of “dictatorial, destructive conduct.”
A boycott of the vote from the right-wing bloc would guarantee Blue and White control over the panel, which determines which parliamentary committees will be formed at the outset and who will staff them.
Blue and White plans to then vote on the formation of the 23rd Knesset’s committees, including the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Finance Committee and a special committee to oversee the handling of the pandemic.
Due to social distancing regulations, Israeli lawmakers will be restricted to entering the Knesset to vote in groups of six at a time in alphabetical order as the parliament opens for business Monday. At any given time no more than 10 people will be allowed inside the plenum. Speakers will sign up in advance and will be called to enter when it is their turn. Waiting areas will be designated for those slated to speak. Those outside the plenum will be able to view the proceedings inside on screens.
With committees expected to be formed, most will be split between two rooms, with members of the panels communicating with each other via videoconference.
As for the MKs currently in quarantine, they will be allowed to vote, though the manner in which they will do so has not yet been finalized.
As of Sunday, seven lawmakers were in quarantine, five from the coalition and two from the opposition: Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Regional Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Shas MKs Moshe Abutbul and Yitzhak Cohen, and Blue and White MKs Ram Ben-Barak and Alon Shuster.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.