President Reuven Rivlin said it was “unthinkable” for a lawmaker to ignore the courts Wednesday, taking aim at Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein for refusing to comply with an order to hold a vote earlier in the day to pick his successor.
Edelstein, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, resigned from his post and closed the Knesset plenum in a surprise move Wednesday morning, as he sought to block legislators from a rival camp from replacing him and pushing ahead with legislative efforts.
While Rivlin avoided criticizing Edelstein by name and also issued a renewed call for unity in his rare televised address to the nation, he said it was inconceivable for any lawmaker to disobey a court order.
“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.
Rivlin said he was sure that with Edelstein out of the picture, the court order would be implemented.
“Israeli democracy will emerge strengthened and more resilient from these testing times,” he said.
It was not entirely clear, however, that Edelstein was yet out of the picture. The speaker, who has served in the role since 2013, said that his resignation would not go into effect for another 48 hours, asserting that the vote on his successor would have to wait.
As Rivlin spoke, the High Court convened a hearing with top government legal officials to seek a way out of the constitutional crisis.
The Knesset’s legal adviser Eyal Yinon earlier 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.
Yinon was later joined by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who informed the High Court and all sides to the contempt petition that in his legal opinion, Edelstein must obey the court ruling.
But Edelstein still refused, telling the High Court that his moral compass did not allow him to comply with the order, and accused the bench of meddling in the legislature’s affairs.
Noting the vagueness of Knesset protocols on when a speaker must be appointed — which provides a final deadline only — Edelstein argued in his response to the High Court order compelling a vote on his successor that this was to enable coalition negotiations to proceed apace, with a speaker chosen after the parties arrive at an agreement. In ordering the speaker appointed now, charged Edelstein, the court was disrupting the coalition talks.
“The court order may bring about the continued political paralysis in the country, paralysis whose resolution lies in political negotiations to build a unity government [of Likud and Blue and White] and not a court order,” he charged, referring to ongoing negotiations between the two largest parties to resolve the year-long deadlock that saw three consecutive national elections fail to yield a government.
Edelstein will be replaced temporarily by Labor’s Amir Peretz, who will serve as interim speaker until a new candidate is picked, likely Blue and White’s Meir Cohen. But it was unclear whether the Likud lawmaker could vacate his position to Peretz before 48 hours were up.
Several organizations, joined by the Blue and White, Labor-Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu parties, filed contempt-of-court petitions against Edelstein on Wednesday.
Edelstein would likely have lost his job in a vote had he not resigned, since an alliance of 61 MKs led by Gantz intends to back Gantz loyalist Cohen for the post. Blue and White would then gain control of the parliamentary agenda.
The High Court had ruled unanimously on Monday night that Edelstein must hold a vote by Wednesday to elect a successor. In its devastating decision, 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,” the court’s president, Justice Esther Hayut, wrote in a damning indictment of Edelstein’s behavior on Monday night, ordering him to schedule a vote on the speaker’s job by Wednesday.
Gantz was tasked last Monday by President 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 the court issued its Monday ruling, Edelstein 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.”
Call for unity
Rivlin also used his Wednesday address to issue a fresh call for unity between political leaders, saying that Israel is in a “time of trouble.”
“Have at the forefront of your minds the terrible disease that is assaulting us and is claiming the lives of our loved ones, that is grievously damaging Israel’s economy and the homes of so many who are battling to survive financially,” he said, appearing to address Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz directly.
“I know how short the distance is between you. Each side must understand the other’s red lines and to be flexible on them, on the understanding that we have – we simply do not have – an alternative.”
“Join together for the good of the Israeli people. If not now, when,” he added.
Unity talks appeared to have taken a hit in recent days over Edelstein’s moves to shutter the Knesset. Likud has warned that if Edelstein is indeed replaced, its offers for a unity government will no longer be on the table.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz have called publicly for a unity government, but each asserts that the other will have to proceed him as premier in a rotational deal.
Netanyahu tweeted Tuesday that the coronavirus pandemic was a crucial time in which leadership and national responsibility had to be exercised, claiming the disagreements between the rivals regarding the specifics of a unity government are small and can be overcome.
“The citizens of Israel need a unity government that would act to save their lives and livelihoods,” he said, addressing Gantz. “This isn’t time for fourth elections. Let’s meet now and form a government today. I am waiting for you.”
Gantz said he was demanding that he go first as prime minister in a rotating premiership deal.