(March 23, 2020 / JNS) Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled on Monday that Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein must schedule a parliamentary vote on his replacement by Wednesday.
Edelstein railed against the court’s unprecedented decision which goes against the Knesset’s own bylaws. “The Knesset bylaws are clear that following an election the vote for Speaker does not have to be done until a new government is formed,” Edelstein told JNS.
The Knesset Speaker is responsible for bringing bills to the plenum for votes, and are therefore selected by a ruling majority. While Blue and White has yet to form a majority government, they seek to advance retroactive bills that would prevent current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a government.
The ruling to force Edelstein into bringing the vote went against the opinion of Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who told the High Court on Sunday that replacing a speaker before the formation of new government could paralyze the parliament. In order for the Knesset to function properly, the Knesset Speaker, who brings bills to the plenum for votes, is appointed by the party at the head of a majority coalition.
“We could be in serious trouble if, in a few weeks, there would be a Knesset speaker from the opposition,” Yinon told the court. “Every Monday and Thursday, we would have a crisis where the Knesset Speaker is pressured by the opposition in order to sabotage government legislation.”
Edelstein explained his reasoning for pushing off the vote, saying “I decided to hold off on the vote for a new speaker because I know that having that vote now means we won’t have a unity government.”
Prior to the court’s ruling, the Likud Party threatened that “if Blue and White ousts the Knesset speaker then the unity negotiations will cease immediately. Blue and White will be responsible for the outcome.”
Edelstein shuttered the Knesset temporarily on March 18 when it was clear that Blue and White was trying to wrestle control of key committees and advance a vote on a new speaker prior to the formation of a majority coalition.
He explained that he paused the committee votes for a few days in order to give the parties time to negotiate. “Agreements were not reached for the interim committees, unlike what has happened after every past election, so I wanted to give a few days to try to come to agreements.”
Social distancing put into place in Knesset
At the same time, the Knesset had not yet developed technical methods for convening as strict distancing restrictions have been placed on the entire public during the coronavirus outbreak.
“There are now several Knesset members in isolation because of corona, and we needed to see how far this spread in the Knesset,” said Edelstein.
According to Chief Justice Esther Hayut, the legislature could not be closed due to health concerns, but should rather find solutions which would enable legislative business to continue with restricted physical contact.
Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit had argued that Health Ministry directives could not be applied to the Knesset or its committees, which were not under any government ministry’s authority. However, in order to stem concerns, no more than 10 people will be allowed inside the plenum at a time, and speakers will have to sign up in advance to be called to enter when it is their turn to speak. Committees will be split into two rooms, with panel members interfacing via videoconferencing technology.
In addition, seven MKs who are currently in quarantine—Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Regional Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Shas MKs Moshe Abutbul and Yitzhak Cohen, and Blue and White MKs Ram Ben-Barak and Alon Shuster—will also be allowed to vote, in a manner yet to be finalized.
With committees expected to be formed, most will be split between two rooms, with members of the panels communicating with each other via videoconference.
Senior Blue and White Knesset member Moshe Ya’alon, himself a former Likud member, told JNS that “Netanyahu lost the election. But instead of accepting the results, he is irresponsibly using the coronavirus crisis to close the courts and stop the Knesset from functioning, leaving him and his interim government free to do whatever they wish.”
The former defense minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff added that “we in Blue and White will establish a wide government led by Benny Gantz, even if at first it will be a narrow one. We must do so in order to save the state. We will not allow Israel to become a dictatorship.”
In absence of an agreement with the Likud, Blue and White’s only potential path to a government is to form a minority coalition of 46 Knesset members, backed by outside support from the Joint List of majority-Arab parties. Prior to the elections, Blue and White members, including Gantz and Ya’alon, insisted that they would not form a government with the support of the anti-Zionist Joint List.
Meanwhile, several members of Blue and White, including members of Ya’alon’s faction, have vowed not to support any government based on support from the Joint Arab List.
Blue and White has also vowed not to sit together in any government led by Netanyahu. Yet Gantz has now expressed his willingness to consider a unity government based on a rotation arrangement.
In an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 news over the weekend, Gantz said that “at the moment, all options need to be on the table. It wouldn’t be responsible on my part not to consider every alternative.” He added that in the current situation “it’s of the utmost importance not to ask about what I had said but [about] what needs to be done.”
The Blue and White chairman criticized Likud’s ultimatum that replacing the Knesset speaker would put an end unity negotiations, tweeting that “someone who wants unity doesn’t use ultimatums, doesn’t use contrived leaks and certainly doesn’t hurt democracy and the citizenry and paralyze the Israeli Knesset.”
Meanwhile, Gantz currently holds the official mandate from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to form a government based on the 61 recommendations he received from MKs (including the Joint List) to form a government, compared to only 58 recommendations for Netanyahu.
If neither Gantz nor Netanyahu can form a government, and the parties fail to reach a unity arrangement, Israel will likely be thrust into a fourth round of elections.
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