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Knesset Speaker quits amid dramatic showdown with Israel’s High Court

Israel’s political impasse reached a boiling point today, resulting in the abrupt resignation by long term Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein in a bombshell announcement. Edelstein, an ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and member of his Likud party, has been engaged in a major constitutional clash with nation’s judiciary over leadership and governance mandates.

Friction erupted after Edelstein refused to hold a parliamentary vote for house speaker following parliamentary elections on 2 March.Netanyahu’s rival, the Blue and White party headed by Benny Gantz, now hold a slim 61 majority of the 120 Members of Knesset (MKs); meaning it was unlikely Edelstein would be reelected. He had previously claimed the vote was being postponed due to ongoing negotiations to form the next government, and declined to set a date as to when a vote would be held.

In response to a Blue and White petition, the High Court of Justice issued a stunning verdict late Monday night ordering Edelstein to hold the vote no later than today. He instead chose to step down.

Critics argued that Edelstein’s entrenchment at the helm of the Knesset would help delay court proceedings against Netanyahu, who has been indicted on three criminal charges. Citing social distancing requirements, Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who is also a Netanyahu loyalist in Likud, limited court sessions – leading to a two-month postponement in the opening of the Premier’s trial to 24 May.

According to his official biography posted on the Knesset website, Yuli Yoel Edelstein was born in Czernowitz, Ukraine (former Soviet Union) in 1958 to Anita and Yuri, who were both survivors of the Holocaust. He first applied for permission to emigrate to Israel in 1979, was arrested by the KGB in 1984, served 3 years in a Soviet forced-labor camp on trumped-up charges, and was finally permitted to leave for the Jewish State with his family in 1987.

Edelstein was first elected as Speaker by a large majority of the 19th Knesset in March 2013. He was reelected to a second term by a large majority of the 20th Knesset in March 2015 and the third term in April 2019 by the 21st Knesset; both times with large majority support and no dissenting votes.

Edelstein was one of the founders and leaders of the Yisrael BaAliyah, a party of new immigrants that ran for the Knesset for the first time in 1996 and won an unprecedented 7 seats in the 14th Knesset. When his party joined Netanyahu’s government, MK Edelstein was appointed Minister of Immigrant Absorption, a position he held until 1999.  He served as Deputy Speaker of the Knesset 1999-2003. The Yisrael BaAliyah officially merged into the Prime Minister’s Likud party in 2003. Over the years, Edelstein also held the Public Diplomacy, Diaspora Affairs and other cabinet portfolios.

Edelstein declared his resignation during a speech at the parliament’s session. “For the sake of the State of Israel, and in order to renew the spirit of raison d’etat in Israel, I hereby resign my role as Knesset speaker. We will pray, and even take action, for better days,” he said.

In a scathing proclamation, he went on to accuse the High Court of “gross and arrogant meddling in the affairs of the legislative branch by the elected judicial branch,” arguing that the justices’ order that he hold a vote for Speaker “harms the sovereignty of the people and the sovereignty of the Knesset in a manner without precedent” and ultimately “undermines the foundations of Israeli democracy.”

After announcing his departure, Edelstein immediately adjourned parliament and it is unclear when a vote for a new speaker would be held. TV7’s request for comment from Edelstein’s office remain unanswered.

Edelstein’s resignation could facilitate plans by the opposition to fast-track legislation to bar Netanyahu from being tasked to form the next government in the event that Gantz, who currently holds the mandate, will fail to do so by 14 April.

Netanyahu, who has denied accusations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, made no immediate comment on the loss of a steadfast ally who could have run interference in efforts by Blue and White to pass new legislation aimed at weakening his 11-year grip on power.

It is important to explain that the initial motion to replace Edelstein follows his decision to suspend parliamentary activities several times over the past two weeks, which consequently prevented the newly-elected 23rd Knesset from forming committees that provide oversight of government-related activities; which is especially crucial when drastic measures are continually enacted to battle the coronavirus.

A senior political source told TV7, however, that the preservation of democracy was not the motive behind the latest developments. According to the official, who asked to remain unnamed as he is a highly-placed Likud MK, Edelstein’s inability to garner the necessary support for reelection combined with the bid by Netanyahu’s political rivals to advance new laws to legally undermine his aspiration to serve an unprecedented fifth term in office, had seemingly triggered the now-outgoing Speaker’s actions.

In a series of statements to TV7, the Blue and White party confirmed that its parliamentary faction chairman, MK Avi Nissenkorn, would  convene the Arrangements Committee this afternoon at a session in which the Knesset legal advisor, Advocate Eyal Yinon would participate, in response to Edelstein’s ‘decision to violate’ the High Court ruling. Moreover, Blue and White “has submitted its position that Knesset speaker, MK Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to call the assembly to vote on a speaker for the 23rd Knesset is in contempt of court” and that his resignation “does not absolve the Speaker of the obligation” of adhering to the High Court verdict.

Blue and White leader, Lt.-Gen. (res.) MK Benny Gantz posted on Twitter: “The Israeli Parliament belongs to Israel’s citizens, and their elected representatives will follow the laws of the State of Israel and the rulings of its courts,” underscoring that “No one is above the law.” On his Facebook account yesterday, Gantz wrote “By tomorrow, as per the Supreme Court ruling, we will appoint a Knesset speaker, consistent with democratic norms. The political spins, the unrestrained attacks on the court, on myself, and on my partners, will not affect any of this.”

After vowing to “make Israeli democracy functional again – unafraid,” the former IDF Chief of Staff called on Netanyahu to “state clearly to the people of this country that court rulings are to be followed and that there will be no anarchy in Israel. Under the guise of handling the coronavirus crisis – which, in fact, requires in-depth medical, social, and economic intervention — we cannot allow Israeli democracy to be trampled upon. Not on my watch.“

Netanyahu currently heads a caretaker government and his critics have accused him of taking a turn towards autocracy during the coronavirus outbreak, an allegation he denies.

In a statement sent to TV7, President of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) Yohanan Plesner said that Speaker Edelstein’s actions over the past few days and his refusal to act in accordance with the High Court’s ruling “are bringing us dangerously close to anarchy.” While acknowledging that “it is of course legitimate to disagree with the ruling,” Plesner added that “It is illegitimate, however, to raise the prospect of not complying with an explicit court order. This is especially true when the event in question involves the head of the legislative branch who himself is one of the most important symbols of democratic government in Israel.”

Plesner, a former Kadima MK, went on to stress that it is still MK Edelstein’s duty to comply with the Court order by including the election for the new Knesset Speaker in today’s plenary agenda – which Edelstein did not – or that “it would be deeply unfortunate if after serving in his position for seven years, Edelstein’s final act as Speaker of the Knesset would be one of contempt of court.”

The IDI President also condemned criticism by senior Israeli ministers against the judiciary in recent days as “irresponsible rhetoric and fierce attacks” that “reflect a new low point in our democracy and could send a dangerous signal to the public that court rulings are not binding or mandatory.”

Netanyahu’s critics among the public have also made their voices heard in repeated demonstrations in front of the Knesset. Scores of protesters have been holding what they call ‘Black Flag’ protests outside of Israel’s parliament for the past few days, calling on lawmakers to ‘save Israeli democracy’ in face of Netanyahu and his allies’ moves.

While actually maintaining the recommended two-meter distance in accordance with Health Ministry decrees to prevent further contagion of the coronavirus, demonstrators were seen waving Israeli and black flags. Others held signs reading “Saving the country, Fighting corruption” and referring to Netanyahu as “Crime Minister,” while one poster bearing the Likud leader’s image  as a baby alongside a damaged parliament was captioned, “Oops it’s broken – Bibi, democracy is not a toy,” with use of Netanyahu’s nickname. One woman called on a loudspeaker for Netanyahu to be sent to prison, and members of the crowd chanted “Democracy.”

One protester identified as Dani Daniely told Reuters that “This is a crucial moment for the Israeli democracy. I think that all the people that you see around are really, very much worried that Israeli democracy is deteriorating.” He added that it was “unprecedented” for Knesset Speaker Edelstein to have refused the High Court order, and that “we hope that something good will come out of it, because we are in a horrible junction for the Israeli democracy.”

The Blue and White bloc is now expected to initiate an assembly vote to elect party member MK Meir Cohen as Edelstein’s replacement. Cohen served as Deputy Speaker in the last functional Knesset until the April 2019 election, which was the country’s second out of three rounds of balloting held in 11 months.