Israeli president to speaker, a Likud MK: Reopen Knesset, don’t damage democracy

Rivlin tells Edelstein he can’t let health crisis ‘harm our democratic system,’ after lawmaker from Netanyahu’s party shuts down parliament; Blue and White to petition High Court

President Reuven Rivlin (L) and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein in the Knesset during a special plenum session marking the 50th birthday of the parliament building, January 19, 2016. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin (L) and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein in the Knesset during a special plenum session marking the 50th birthday of the parliament building, January 19, 2016. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In an extraordinary intervention underlining concerns over Israeli democracy functioning properly during the coronavirus outbreak and political crisis, Israel’s president on Wednesday phoned the Knesset speaker and told him to reopen parliament after it was shuttered, a move that prevented any form of parliamentary oversight of the government’s far-reaching measures to tackle the virus.

“A Knesset that is out of action harms the ability of the State of Israel to function well and responsibly in an emergency. We must not let this crisis, as serious as it is, harm our democratic system,” President Reuven Rivlin told Yuli Edelstein by phone.

Rivlin “implored” Edelstein “to ensure ongoing parliamentary activity, even during the coronavirus crisis,” a statement from the president’s office said.

“We must do everything to deal with the crisis, being careful not to grievously harm our democratic system,” Rivlin added.

President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, March 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Edelstein made the shock announcement earlier in the day that he was locking the plenary, at least until next week, after his Likud and its rival the Blue and White party failed to reach a compromise on the formation of Knesset committees.

In a statement rejecting criticism of his decision, Edelstein said the country’s “democratic process and parliamentary oversight” will only be restored when “we are prepared for it.”

“I’ve been spending no small number of hours yesterday and today trying to reach an agreement between the factions. I offered a compromise that I thought could press ‘start’ on the Knesset’s work now, even at this very moment,” he said.

Edelstein, who was widely panned by those outside the Likud-led caretaker government, said the Knesset will only reopen next Monday at the earliest, citing the need for unity talks between Likud and Blue and White, and expressing concerns about the coronavirus. Israel has banned gatherings of over 10 people to stem the spread.

Apart from staffing the committees, Blue and White was seeking to replace Edelstein as speaker. On Monday, the Likud lawmaker, who has held the post since 2013, prevented a vote from being held on his replacement.

Separately, new regulations in the Knesset will bar most workers from entering the building, aside from lawmakers and some parliamentary aides. A number of Knesset members have been sent into quarantine after coming into contact with confirmed carriers of the disease.

“It also isn’t nice for me to see Knesset members who can’t come into the plenary, but these are the directives. Without a doubt, all the democratic process and parliamentary process will take place the moment we are prepared for it. I don’t intend to drag this matter out,” Edelstein said.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein is tested for fever outside the Knesset on March 16, 2020 (Knesset spokespersons’ office)

In response, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz said his faction would immediately file an appeal to the High Court of Justice against Edelstein’s decision.

“We have been working hard all day through different communication channels — including me meeting personally with MK Edelstein, who is refusing to let us congregate in the halls of democracy and work for the citizens and — above all else — tackle the challenge of corona,” Gantz said.

“At this point — we have no choice but to turn to the Supreme Court,” he added.

Gantz made this announcement in a missive to the members of Blue and White, Joint List, Yisrael Beytenu and Labor-Gesher-Meretz — the parties that recommended him for prime minister, which represent a majority in the Knesset.

In the letter, Gantz accused Edelstein of working on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Head of Blue and White party Benny Gantz holds a press conference at Kfar Maccabiah on March 7, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The crux of the disagreement centers around the size of the Arrangements 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.

The Arrangements Committee is the panel that is supposed to submit to the Knesset the makeup of the various standing committees. Until the standing committees are established, the Arrangements Committee may appoint provisional committees. With no Arrangements Committee in place, provisional committees cannot be established leaving no oversight over the government’s work.

Likud MK Avi Nissenkorn and Blue and White MK Ze’ev Elkin met earlier Wednesday for talks on the composition of the Arrangements Committee, but failed to reach agreement.

Blue and White suggested that the committee convene in a large auditorium with room for all its members to maintain a distance of two meters from each other in order to adhere to Health Ministry guidelines on avoiding coronavirus infection, and also suggested that 10 members be allowed to gather in the committee room with the remainder taking part by videoconference.

Likud and Edelstein have been accused of using procedural matters to hamper parliamentary oversight.

“A black flag is today hanging over the Knesset,” said Labor MK Itzik Shmuli. “At a time when, more than ever, the people need their representatives, the Knesset is turning its back and closing its gates. This is a grave breach of public trust at a time when the number of sick [from coronavirus] is about to surge and the economy faces collapse. I am convinced that we will defeat the virus at the end of the day, but I am not so sure there will be a way back from the attempt to bury Israeli democracy.”

On Tuesday, several senior Blue and White figures accused Edelstein and Netanyahu of eroding Israeli democracy in the fight against the coronavirus.

In a video posted on social media, Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid said: “It’s possible that it doesn’t really interest you with all this coronavirus in the air, but as of today, you no longer live in a democracy.”

“The judiciary was closed four days ago, in an order given at 1 a.m., without anyone knowing about it,” he said, referring to Likud’s Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s decision to close the courts, days before Netanyahu’s corruption trial was set to begin.

Blue and White MK Yair Lapid at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

He also cited the introduction of mass surveillance of Israeli citizens — to track virus cases and those with whom they interact — without parliamentary oversight, and decisions to shut down the operations of the judiciary and legislature due to the spiraling virus outbreak.

“The legislature was closed today, illegally,” Lapid continued. “The previous Knesset speaker, who wasn’t elected to the position [in the current legislature], closed the Knesset. Before that, he refused the request of a majority of the Knessset, 62 MKs, to pick a new speaker instead of him.”

Echoing Lapid, fellow Blue and White MK Moshe Ya’alon accused Netanyahu of using the coronavirus to neuter Israeli democracy.

“Blue and White will establish as broad an emergency government as possible, even if we start with a narrow government, to save the country. We won’t allow Netanyahu to turn Israel into a dictatorship,” Ya’alon, a former member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, tweeted.

Gantz earlier on Tuesday called the restrictions on parliament, ostensibly to combat the virus, “a dangerous precedent for democracy.”

Blue and White, in a Friday letter to Speaker Edelstein, informed him of its intention to hold a vote on naming a new speaker shortly after all 120 MKs were officially sworn in Monday, following the March 2 Knesset election. The move by Blue and White was seen as an attempted power play ahead of coalition-building attempts, as the party believes it can secure a majority in the new legislature to take the reins of parliament from Likud for the first time in more than a decade. It was blocked by Edelstein.

Control of the  speaker position would give the opposition parties more power to advance legislation, including a potential bill that would prevent a person facing criminal charges from forming a government — effectively disqualifying Netanyahu from doing so.

Israel has introduced a series of sweeping restrictions since the coronavirus outbreak began, requiring all Israelis returning to the country to self-quarantine for 14 days and barring foreigners unless they displayed an ability to quarantine. It also shut schools, cafes, malls, gyms and more. Ministers early on Tuesday approved a highly controversial measure to allow the government to track Israelis’ phones to locate where carriers of the virus had been.

On Tuesday, widening the restrictions, the Health Ministry told Israelis not to leave their homes or visit parks and beaches, with exceptions made for essential needs, like food shopping, medicine shopping, medical care, and work.

As of Wednesday morning, there have been 433 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Israel, six of them in serious condition.

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