Citing the ongoing coronavirus crisis and the political deadlock following Israel’s third election in a year, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein informed the High Court of Justice Monday night that he does not agree with its position that he should hold a vote on electing a new Knesset speaker by Wednesday.
Instead, Edelstein said he will only schedule a vote “when the political situation becomes clear.”
“I won’t agree to ultimatums,” Edelstein told the court in his official response. “I can’t agree because that would make the Knesset’s agenda determined by the High Court and not by the Speaker of the Knesset, who is assigned this role.”
Edelstein’s response came hours after the panel of judges indicated that Edelstein, of the Likud party, must schedule a parliamentary vote on his replacement this week.
The justices cited the Knesset’s legal adviser’s position that a vote for speaker should be held shortly, and the attorney general’s position that a vote for speaker should be held as soon as possible, and gave Edelstein until 9 p.m. Monday to respond.
The court later ruled that Edelstein must comply and hold a vote by Wednesday, accusing him of undermining democracy.
In his response, Edelstein had said that, due to the political situation, whereby Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has been tasked with forming a government, despite having won fewer seats than the Likud and appearing unlikely to be able to muster a coalition, an immediate election of the speaker would be destabilizing.
Edelstein, a Likud ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would likely lose his job in the vote, since a Gantz-led alliance of 61 MKs is set to back Blue and White’s Meir Cohen for the post. Blue and White would then gain control of the parliamentary agenda.
“A permanent Knesset chairman was never elected at a time when there was such great uncertainty as to the composition of the future coalition,” Edelstein wrote. And given the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis, he said, it would be irresponsible to hold a vote now.
“I intend to put the Knesset Speaker’s election on the Knesset’s agenda ‘as soon as possible,’ as circumstances warrant, from the next few days until ‘the Knesset convenes for the establishment of the government,’ Edelstein said, quoting the law that gives him significant leeway in deciding when to hold the vote.
“Due to the special circumstances, at this stage I find it difficult to specify an exact date, but I intend to place the issue on the Knesset’s agenda when the political situation becomes clear. Hopefully, this will happen in the shortest possible time,” the Knesset speaker told the High Court.
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 that the freeze was linked to safety precautions amid the coronavirus outbreak, but later explained it was meant to force Likud and Blue and White to compromise in unity talks.
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 some argued that it constituted part of an attempted political coup, with a parliamentary majority headed by Gantz prevented from assuming control of the Knesset’s agenda.
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.
Given Edelstein’s response, the justices will now have to issue a ruling on whether a vote must indeed take place by Wednesday. If Edelstein were then to reject that ruling, as he has been encouraged to do by some in his party and in the religious-right-wing bloc of parties supporting Netanyahu, Israel would be in a constitutional crisis.
“This court does not exercise its authority in such a case but in special cases where there is a concern about harming the fabric of democratic life,” Edelstein wrote, adding that, “Postponing the date of the election of the chairman will not hurt the foundations of Israeli democracy, but the contrary.”
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who also plays a central role in coalition negotiations, condemned the High Court ruling on Monday, and urged Edelstein to defy the justices.
“The court has officially taken control of the Knesset, and from today, the High Court has turned the Knesset speaker into a rubber stamp as the Knesset and plenary are being managed by the justices,” said Levin. “There’s nothing like this in any democracy. I urge the Knesset speaker to announce that only he will determine when the plenary convenes and what its agenda shall be.”
Justice Minister Amir Ohana, also of Likud, tweeted a photo of the court’s stated position, which also said Edelstein must inform the justices on whether he will proceed with a vote on his replacement. Above it, wrote Ohana: “If I were the Knesset speaker, my answer would be no.”