Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s bombshell announcement Wednesday that he was resigning rather than call a parliament vote on his own replacement, as required earlier this week by the High Court of Justice, drew an immediate torrent of heated reactions.
In announcing his resignation, Edelstein lambasted the High Court ruling with language seldom heard from a Knesset speaker, saying it was “not based on the letter of the law but on a one-sided and extreme interpretation” and adding that it “contravenes Knesset regulations … destroys the work of the Knesset … constitutes crude and arrogant intervention of the judiciary in the matters of the elected legislature … causes unprecedented harm to the people’s sovereignty and the Knesset’s sovereignty,” and “undermines the foundations of Israeli democracy.”
“As someone who has paid a personal price of years in a labor camp for the right to live in the State of Israel, as a Zionist and as the speaker of this house, I won’t allow Israel to descend into anarchy, I won’t lend a hand to civil war,” added Edelstein, who spent three years in a Soviet gulag.
“Therefore, for the benefit of the State of Israel… I am hereby resigning from my role as Knesset speaker,” he said. “Let us pray and work for better days.”
Edelstein said he was closing the plenum until Monday. His resignation will only enter into effect in 48 hours, meaning his actions have delayed a vote on the next speaker until next week.
Reactions from the political left censured Edelstein’s action.
Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah noted that the resignation did not exempt Edelstein from his duty to call a plenum vote on a new speaker.
“This is the height of the war waged by Netanyahu and Likud against the Knesset and democracy,” he said. “We won’t let it pass.”
Labor MK Merav Michaeli said Edelstein was “humiliating the Supreme Court” and that “this constitutional crisis is the bottom of the barrel, which we have reached over ten years of a slippery slope during Netanyahu’s corrupt rule.”
MK Ofer Cassif, the only Jewish lawmaker in the predominantly Arab Joint List, said the speaker “defied the High Court ruling in Netanyahu’s service and is dragging us into a tyrannical regime. Citizens of Israel who care about the remnants of democracy must protest now.”
Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz called Edelstein’s conduct “shameful,” noting that it was the first time in Israel’s history that a Knesset speaker resigned and claiming that both Edelstein’s resignation and his failure to call a plenum vote were wrong.
“Edelstein’s resignation doesn’t cancel a High Court ruling,” said fellow Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, urging the newly formed Knesset Arrangements Committee to either “take the reins” and call a plenum vote by itself or quickly elect a deputy Knesset speaker to call it.
However, that isn’t possible according to Yuval Yoaz, a legal analyst for The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, Zman Yisrael.
An organization headed by Yoaz, New Contract, has filed a contempt of court petition to the High Court, noting that since Edelstein’s resignation only goes into effect after 48 hours, he is still bound by the original court decision forcing him to hold a vote on Wednesday.
“He is still allowed to withdraw his resignation until 48 hours have passed,” Yoaz said. “So the Arrangements Committee cannot do anything in the meantime. And there are currently no deputy speakers, so there is nobody to take the reins and convene the plenum.”
Another organization, the Movement for Quality Government, said it would petition the High Court to allow the vote to go forward on Wednesday.
Responses varied on the right, with four members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party expressing four different and sometimes conflicting stances, reflecting the chaos Edelstein’s resignation had caused.
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev attacked the rival Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu parties for bringing about the situation that resulted in Edelstein’s departure.
“Applause to Gantz, Lapid, Ashkenazi, Bogie [Ya’alon] and Liberman,” she tweeted. “You did it. You will go down in the history books as being behind one of the lowliest acts Israeli democracy has known. Take it away from here — a Jewish minority alongside the list of terror supporters.”
Likud MK Miki Zohar, a top Netanyahu ally, called on him to “halt negotiations on unity with Blue and White.”
Another Likud lawmaker, Shlomo Karai, took a different stance and criticized Edelstein for stepping down, saying that instead he should have informed the High Court he had no intention of adhering to its ruling.
Likud’s Energy Ministry Yuval Steinitz expressed yet another opinion, saying the High Court ruling must be respected and fulfilled because otherwise “it could lead to anarchy.”
Israel’s top court on Monday night ruled unanimously that Edelstein must hold a vote by Wednesday to elect a successor. In its devastating ruling, it accused him of undermining democracy by refusing to do so.
Edelstein would likely have lost his job were a vote to have been held Wednesday, since an alliance of 61 MKs led by Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, intends to back Gantz loyalist Meir Cohen for the post. Blue and White would then gain control of the parliamentary agenda.
Gantz was tasked last Monday 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 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.
Before they issued their ruling, Edelstein — who was elected to the Knesset in 1996 and has been speaker since 2013 — had informed the panel of five justices that he would only schedule a vote “when the political situation becomes clear.”
“I won’t agree to ultimatums,” Edelstein told the court. “I can’t agree because this means that the Knesset’s agenda will be determined by the High Court and not by the Speaker of the Knesset, who is assigned this role.”
Edelstein said that due to the political situation — in which Blue and White leader Gantz has been tasked with forming a government despite having won fewer seats than Likud (33-36) and appearing unlikely to be able to muster a coalition — an immediate election of a new speaker would be destabilizing.